Donald Trump’s Sinking PR Crisis

“As a Puerto Rican living in Chicago, this is how I picture the President of the United States is managing the crisis in Puerto Rico with no sense of urgency after two hurricanes hit the island.”


Puerto Rico Can’t Get Prompt Aid Because It’s Puerto Rico

From the vantage point of the U.S. mainland, it seems obvious that the disaster response effort in Puerto Rico isn’t going well.

Twelve days after Maria made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane on September 20, that effort seems to be getting worse, not better, and for any bit of good news, there has been a countervailing piece of bad news: Yes, 65 percent of the island’s gas stations were back online by Sunday, but local media outlets reported it was a “weekend of terror,” with thieves targeting the gas stations, taking advantage of the island’s lack of electricity and the fact that police and other emergency responders were stretched thin. And yes, more hospitals were reopening — bringing the total to sixty of the island’s sixty-eight — but of those, only nine had electricity, and reports circulated about emergency rooms closing because they lacked enough diesel; another in the capital evacuated patients because of a failed generator. And, of course, there’s the story that’s been getting the most airtime on the mainland: more than 10,000 cargo containers full of aid sitting in the port of San Juan, unable to be off-loaded and distributed.

Isn’t anyone in charge? Why does the response seem so inadequate?

The answers, says Hannah Coffey, a program manager and emergency planner with Boldplanning Inc., a Nashville, Tennessee–based emergency operations planning firm, are, “Yes, there’s someone in charge” — his name is Brock Long and he’s the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency — and, “It’s complicated.”

“This problem precedes this disaster by a long stretch,” Coffey explains, and is only compounded by the fact that, as a commonwealth of the United States, Puerto Rico simply isn’t entitled to the same sorts of emergency planning and response resources that are available to the fifty states. No matter what Puerto Rico and its individual citizens might have done to prepare for an unprecedented hurricane, its government and emergency planners could never access the planning and disaster resources available to states because they’re not allowed to.

“People are seeing the here, the now, and the emergent,” says Coffey, “but they’re not seeing what led up to it.”

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It’s not FEMA’s or Long’s inadequacies at play here, says Coffey, who knows Long personally and describes him as “an astoundingly honest and straightforward man who brings a private-sector sharpness that often doesn’t play well in the media.” In fact, she praises Long for pushing through approval of a declaration of emergency for the region on September 18, two days before the hurricane made landfall.

Instead, it’s U.S. policy that treats American citizens in its commonwealths and territories as second-class — literally. Because Puerto Rico is not a state, Coffey explains, the island doesn’t qualify for crucial FEMA grants — HMGPs and EMPGs and PDMs — that are central to disaster planning, management, and recovery. This money is what allows state governments to do pre-staging, putting conditions in place to make sure response and recovery go smoothly. Without such funds, pre-staging is extremely limited, if not impossible.

Nor does Puerto Rico qualify for interstate resource sharing schema that are common on the mainland. “When something happens in Arkansas, Texas has mobile units ready to go and it’s an even Stephen exchange,” explains Coffey, thanks to existing memorandums of understanding (MOU) among the states. “At some point, they will get paid back in some perverse federal bartering system. That doesn’t exist when you’re on an island. There aren’t MOUs. You’re left to beg, borrow, or steal.”

In the absence of interstate agreements, commonwealths like Puerto Rico (or territories like Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands) are left to cobble together an emergency version of standard operating procedure. On an island already beset by a lack of resources — Puerto Rico was already staggering under more than $70 billion in debt and failing infrastructure — it becomes virtually impossible to set up emergency scaffolding.

Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status is a legacy of its colonial history, dating back to a 1901 Supreme Court ruling that, unlike Hawaii, which the United States had acquired at the same time three years earlier, Puerto Rico and Guam were unincorporated territories without full constitutional protections. “In short, Hawaii and previously acquired territories were considered proto-states, while Puerto Rico and other new territories were colonies,” says Doug Mack, author of The Not-Quite States of America. That 1901 ruling “is full of explicitly racist language about ‘foreign aliens,’ ” he adds, “and it still stands today.”

The resulting conditions are bizarrely inconsistent. Puerto Ricans are citizens but they can’t vote for president. They can serve in the military, yet they have no real representation in Washington. There’s a seemingly endless number of similar contradictions that are not easily conveyed to mainland Americans, many of whom aren’t even aware of the nature of Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States.

“They’re not a state [so] they’re not real [to many mainlanders],” Coffey says. The recent sudden saturation of American news with reports from Puerto Rico was preceded by a near-total absence of reporting about the island, much less from it. And the lack of understanding about Puerto Rico’s status as a territory makes what’s already an incredibly difficult hurricane response effort look even more chaotic.

In an ideal situation, what should have happened in Puerto Rico in advance of the hurricane? Coffey, who is also part of the disaster response NGO Team Rubicon, and who has worked in emergency planning and disaster response and recovery in national and international contexts, has plenty of ideas.

First, says Coffey, drop pads should have been set up. These are sites where supplies can be air-dropped in and have a reasonable chance of landing safely. Then, there have to be centralized points of distribution of those supplies — not just one site, but multiple locations spread out, where people can access them. There are also preparatory steps that could have been taken, like installing desalination systems; it’s a cruel irony to be running out of water when you’re surrounded by it.

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Ultimately, the problem isn’t scrambling for aid, or finding officials and civilians to distribute it. Plenty of corporations and private individuals have donated aid, and hundreds of trained rescue workers are eager to help. The problem is red tape.

“Without pre-staging areas, grant funds, and receiving ports, we’re left with a dead zone within which to drop stuff off,” Coffey explains. “We can’t just drop it off anywhere. There are ways to drop it off but they’re not federal. They’re private.” Emergency response volunteers, such as those who are part of Team Rubicon, are limited by hourly caps and liability waivers that won’t allow them to go beyond a certain point.

“Brock has been very proactive about pushing those boundaries,” Coffey adds, “but he’s hamstrung by the administration that employs him. He’s always walking the razor’s edge.”

The bureaucracy that already characterized Puerto Rico’s relationship with the federal government thanks to its commonwealth status was only compounded post 9-11. “Some of this goes back to the Patriot Act,” Coffey explains. “You’re not allowed to intervene in these disaster zones unless you have special clearance.” When FEMA was subsumed by the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, that absorption created a byzantine system that is slow and complex when it needs to be nimble and streamlined. “We ended up with two layers of bureaucracy [that] made it much more difficult for people to work through,” she says.

What fundamentally needs to happen post-Maria, Coffey says, is for the United States to start treating Puerto Rico and its other territories and holdings the same ways as it does states. “We can’t pretend that they’re not there. We need to make sure [Puerto Rico] has the same rights as a state so it can receive the same support states receive.”

And finally, she says, “We need to change the way the media perceives and covers Puerto Rico as a non-state.” That means covering the island in “normal” times so that it becomes real to mainland Americans who know little about its history. “If we lose the opportunity to learn from this hurricane,” she says, “if we don’t change the way we approach preparedness and mitigation, then we’ve lost a massive opportunity that we can’t regain.”


Trump Attacks San Juan’s Mayor, Rightbloggers Insist It’s Not About Race

Last week, I speculated that, after inflaming passions with his comments about protesting black NFL players, Trump would move on and stir up a new and entirely different racial controversy. Turned out I was right, but I’ll be honest: I didn’t imagine he’d do so by attacking the beleaguered mayor of a disaster area, as he did with his comments on San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz after she annoyed him by pointing out her city was not getting adequate relief from the mainland.

In retrospect it makes sense: Trump is the kind of old-school New York landlord who would be as comfortable discriminating against Puerto Ricans as he was against blacks. If he never before said “they want everything to be done for them” about Puerto Ricans who lived in his buildings and wanted their boiler fixed in the winter, I would be extremely surprised.

Also, in addition to being Puerto Rican, Cruz is female, and Trump has had some success in recent years promoting misogyny. (He even used one of his old Hillary slurs on Cruz.) Plus, her country remains ravaged, and if there’s anything else that would excite those such as Trump, it’s the prospect of attacking the helpless.

The president’s factota — press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, former Trump caddie and current Trump social media director Dan Scavino Jr., FEMA administrator and Brownie-in-waiting Brock Long, et alia — expectedly backed him up. Also expectedly, Democrats such as Hillary Clinton supported Cruz against Trump.

Republicans not in the Trump orbit, while acknowledging that Trump’s racist outburst may have been “inappropriate,” tried not to get in trouble by complaining too loudly about it. “In tussle with San Juan mayor, Trump makes some fellow Republicans uneasy,” tweeted Politico’s Marc Caputo with a straight face, pimping a story in which Trump was forthrightly criticized by exactly one Republican with an elected office to defend, Florida state representative Bob Cortes; better known Republicans’ quotes were far gentler (example: “This is not a time for politics” — Florida governor Rick Scott).

Rightbloggers — well, you can imagine. Some did the old “Racy? What’s wrong with being racy?” routine.

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“The Media Has Its ‘Kanye Moment’ On Trump — CNN, MSNBC Make Disaster Relief All About ‘Racism,’ ” scoffed the Daily Caller’s Justin Caruso. “CNN, MSNBC, and other media outlets are once again rushing to paint Trump as a racist, taking his criticism of San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz as proof of his malice against Puerto Rican people.” But for all their talk about dog whistles, Caruso retorted, “Trump never actually said anything about race.” Now, if the president had said, “I hate Puerto Ricans and, believe me, it’s solely because of their race,” then maybe the liberal media would have something.

For the more lawyerly version, see Ann Althouse: “That’s aggravating, when people are suffering, but should it be called ‘demented’ and ‘racist’?” she argued. “I can see why a Trump hater would jump at an opportunity to frame ‘They’ as Puerto Ricans in general and, in addition, to see Puerto Ricans as a racial group being subjected to disrespect because of race.” Given Trump’s excellent record on race relations, it seems only fair to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Others invoked the old folk wisdom that anything that makes liberals mad is MAGA good. “Overnight Trump Unleashed 5 Puerto Rico Tweets Sending Liberals Into MELTDOWN Mode,” said Terresa Monroe-Hamilton at Right Wing News. She fixed the blame instead on the impoverished island territory for being impoverished — “Hell, they shouldn’t be on the verge of bankruptcy, but they are”; poor people, they’re the worst — and on liberals for “gleefully claiming that this is [Trump’s] Katrina” and “salivating over dead bodies.”

When liberals pointed out that not even George W. Bush treated New Orleans’ elected officials like this during Katrina, some conservatives pretended this was praise of Bush and accused them of insincerity: e.g., “Right, ‘WTF we love Bush now’. Get bent,” tweeted red-pill stuntman Stephen Miller.

Samantha Chang at BizPac Review announced Trump had authoritative backup for his claims that things were going great in Puerto Rico: “Former baseball star Curt Schilling is in Puerto Rico, and confirmed that President Trump sent aid to the hurricane-ravaged island in record time.”

Some conservatives bade us spare a thought for the real victim here: Donald Trump.

“Trump Charges into the Democrats’ Trap on Puerto Rico,” headlined National Review’s Dan McLaughlin. You may think the president capable of being an asshole without being tricked into it, but McLaughlin knew better. While tut-tutting Trump’s “self-destructive approach to communications” and “political malpractice,” McLaughlin bade readers understand that “realistically, there is only so much a president can do in this situation,” and how terrible it is that his unfortunate tweeting “plays into every bad narrative about Trump.”

Also, said McLaughlin, Trump’s “complaints about Puerto Rico’s dysfunctional government” were “all true” and “a fair part of the story” — just as “failures of the Democrat-run state and local governments” were the sadly underappreciated reasons for the Katrina disaster, for which, McLaughlin reminisced, “George W. Bush was pounded with merciless partisan spin from the opening hours of the hurricane in 2005, and the Democrats and the media succeeded in casting a partisan narrative in stone while people were still under water in New Orleans.” The bastards!

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Thus, per McLaughlin, just as Bush got a bum rap from the Democrats and media, so was Trump getting one — Cruz was “goading him,” the Democrats were “transparently using the occasion for partisan gain,” and the media (which, much like Puerto Ricans, was too lazy and poor to do the “hard, expensive work of sending reporters to the field”) chose to “save money and catch the low-hanging fruit” by mocking Trump. No wonder the poor man was so rattled he found himself — through no fault of his own, mind you! — “walking into their trap” with his “bull-in-a-china-shop approach.” See, he’s just too honest — which is just what his white working-class fans love about him.

Others rushed to adopt this passive-aggressive approach. “There is no doubt the media and the Democrats, working in tandem, look for any opportunity to get this president,” said Patterico’s Pontifications, “so for his sake, he should stop giving them so much to work with.” “The Democrats, of course, are using the tragedy for political gain against the President and the media has been complicit,” said Erick Erickson at the Resurgent, but darn it, the president wound up “predictably taking the bait against San Juan’s Mayor.” While “a mature president would just do his job,” Jay Caruso couldn’t be too mad at Trump: “It’s human nature to be frustrated in the face of adversity. People get emotional. It happens.” The world is full of lures and snares!

Meanwhile, some of the more dutiful operatives went digging for dirt on Cruz: The Daily Caller slithered in with “San Juan Mayor Praised Convicted FALN Terrorist.” Cruz apparently had kind words to say about Oscar Lopez Rivera, a former member of FALN, the Puerto Rican equivalent of the IRA, who marched in this year’s Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City. And the Daily Caller found a mayor from another Puerto Rican city who claimed Cruz didn’t go to FEMA meetings. Soon come the rallies where rage-filled honkies will roar to have Cruz locked up.

While Trump’s backers in the conservative media made excuses, Trump’s true believers in the trenches simply reveled in his and their racism. A good example comes from “Former DC Lobbyist, 20y Itn’l Photo Journ-Live-Work Worldwide, DiploCor, Airline Ex” Kate WarRoom Trumper, who tweeted, “PR with their ‘gimme entitlement’ society has bankrupted PR.Nothing has changed. They r sitting back & saying..Fix it..I’m entitled. [shit emoji].”

There, in all its malignant glory, is Trump’s base, folks. And it shows the oft-mentioned divide between the conservative “establishment” and the Trumpkins. The establishment is trying to convince moderates that Trump doesn’t really mean what he obviously means; the Trumpkins, having no phony-baloney media jobs to protect, don’t bother. It would seem a bad sign for a candidate (and the party chained to him) who is presumed to need moderates to win — assuming their votes are still going to be counted.


NYC Not Nearly Ready for the Next Megastorm

My first question for Robert Freudenberg, the vice president of energy and environment at the Regional Plan Association, is really the only one that matters: If another storm, one more powerful than Sandy — say, Hurricane Maria, which may yet hit the East Coast after tearing its way through the Caribbean — hits New York City, how screwed are we?

Freudenberg lets out a bit of a chuckle. “Screwed with an asterisk,” he says, “depending on the storm that hits.”

Screwed, depending is either the name of the shittiest rom-com ever or the current predicament facing every coastal American city. New York City had done almost nothing prior to Sandy to prepare for a major hurricane strike, despite the fact that climate scientists had been warning about the growing danger of such an event for at least two decades. In a 2015 paper for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Columbia University climate scientist Klaus Jacob recounted these failures to address our vulnerable cities. “Sandy provided an opportunity to change this,” he wrote, “but while some incremental changes to reduce risk are under way, we are still in denial of the long-term consequences of sea level rise.”

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The “incremental changes” to which Jacob was referring are the same that Freudenberg points to when he declares New York City “ahead of the curve,” at least as far as American cities go, when it comes to sea level rise and storm protections. We had our shot across the bow in the form of Sandy, which wasn’t nearly as powerful as the recent storms down south. Now the mayor has an entire Office of Recovery and Resiliency. There are solid evacuation plans in place for Lower Manhattan. The electrical grid has been upgraded to be more resilient. Plans are in place to build a seawall around Lower Manhattan. Nearly 300 homes in Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, were bought out by the state and turned into wetlands. The MTA is making progress on installing 5,600 rapid-deployment covers to the various openings in the system so that it doesn’t become an emergency drainage system.

But we’re still talking about a fraction of the steps necessary to make the city truly storm-resistant. Billions more dollars are needed, including from the private sector, which so far has not contributed in any substantial way, save for stormproofing some new waterfront apartments. Beyond that, progress is slow. That Lower Manhattan wall? It was announced in 2014, but construction hasn’t begun; the project keeps getting scaled back, and nobody knows when it’ll actually be built or what the final form will look like. “Work is far from finished” on the storm covers, Jacob tells the Voice, noting that with the MTA hurting for funds, it’s hard to expedite the remaining work. The Oakwood Beach project is a successful pilot program, but in the meantime thousands of apartments have been built along high-risk flood zones in Brooklyn and Queens; while some of this construction at least puts critical operations such as electrical systems above likely water levels, it’s still more people in flood-prone areas.

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The problem for politicians is a familiar one: incentives. They’re elected for the short term, and addressing long-term problems provides very little political payoff. Why spend billions on a century-long need when there are so many immediate ones, like affordable housing and the subway crisis? (The answer, of course, is because it’s really fucking important, but whatever.) Plus, it’s been five years since Sandy, just long enough for a false sense of security to set in. Subway stations damaged by Sandy have reopened. There haven’t been any close calls. Life has gone on.

Are we prepared for the next Sandy or the even worse storm that will eventually arrive? The expert answer is no, we’re not. But even if we had built the seawall or other infrastructure to secure the city, that would just delay the inevitable. As Jacob pointed out in his paper, those billions are merely the up-front cost. The infrastructure then has to be maintained and expanded upon as sea levels continue to rise into the next century. At the climate’s current rate of change, the “defend and fortify” method can only go so far, requiring constant vigilance beyond anything New York City has ever managed about anything.

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Jacob’s paper predicted that, by the end of this century, a “Sandy-like flood will occur, on average, once every 10 years (or an annual chance of 1 in 10).” But Freudenberg believes it’s not helpful to think in these terms. Instead, he says, we simply need to “acknowledge things are going to change so much. We don’t know what is coming or when it’s coming.” All we can do is be prepared. Hopefully someone will get right on that.


Spared Full Force of Irma, Bahamians Organize Relief, Worry for Future

At the 11 a.m. church service at Harlem’s Bethany Baptist Church on September 10, the wooden pews were largely filled with well-dressed older New Yorkers. Most were first- or second-generation immigrants from the English-speaking islands and archipelagos of the Caribbean, which at that moment had already been battered by Hurricane Irma and were bracing for the possibility of more storms as well.

The service was partly a celebration of the 105th anniversary of the Bahamian American Association, Inc. (BAAI), and several prominent members of New York’s Bahamian community were in attendance. One of them, Civil Court Judge J. Machelle Sweeting, was unbowed. “Irma has not impacted the Bahamas so much that the spirit of the Bahamas is not represented here in the house,” she told the assembled congregation, to cheers.

Indeed, many of the assembled Bahamians felt not only concern, but also a measure of relief. Irma had mostly avoided hitting the northern islands, including New Providence, home of the capital and largest city, Nassau. Some southern islands were affected, but the nation’s new government, sworn in only this past May, managed to airlift about 1,200 people to the capital ahead of the storm’s landfall, a fact that was noted approvingly by several in attendance.

Christine Butler, a Bronxite who was born in the Bahamas and moved to New York for college in the 1980s, said she’d chatted with her sister, a teacher who lives in New Providence, that morning on the way to church. “They battened down the school windows, and now they were trying to put sandbags around their house, because they live on three waterways,” she said. Ultimately, Irma passed by New Providence without much incident. “They’re just getting a lot of wind, but there were no damages to property.”

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The southern islands suffered downed power lines, damages to roofs, and fallen trees and debris, but largely escaped any lasting damage. Hotels and resorts — hugely important in a nation where over 40 percent of the economy depends on tourism — are mostly operational again, though the nation remained at risk from Hurricane Maria, which could reach the southern Bahamas by week’s end. BAAI president Andrew Albury says the Bahamian government is hoping to keep the southern islands evacuated in anticipation: “Some of the people, they want to go back, but we’ll have to wait and see.”

For several Bahamians, the aftermath of Irma stood in stark contrast to the wake of Matthew, a Category 5 behemoth that slammed into the archipelago in October 2016, killing dozens and causing lasting structural damage. Close to 95 percent of buildings in two residential areas of Grand Bahama, the nation’s northernmost island, sustained significant damage at the time. “My family is still recovering in the Bahamas from Hurricane Matthew,” says Butler.

Albury agrees that Matthew did more damage in the Bahamas than Irma, even as he helps organize a push to provide aid now. “I’m going to fly down next week to see what they need, and how much of it they need,” he said, adding that there were already efforts underway to identify exactly what was required: “If you give fifty dollars, we want to know exactly who needs that fifty dollars.” Most of the aid would take the form of medicine, food, and clothing, he said. Given the Bahamas’ relative reprieve from the storm’s worst effects, Albury said that some of the aid would be sent to other Caribbean nations, like Antigua and Barbuda, where it was more vital.

Not that the Bahamas was entirely spared the brunt of Irma. A reverse storm surge caused the ocean at the archipelago’s Long Island in the south to recede hundreds of feet from the waterfront, leaving bare sand and dying fish, according to reports that caused concern among those gathered at the Harlem church. Congregants also worried about the possibility of more hurricanes bearing down on the beleaguered population.

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“I am concerned because the Bahamas is twenty-two inhabited islands. Any one of those hurricanes can hit any one of those islands,” said Beryl Edgecombe, the president of Bahamian American Cultural Society. “Because of the population and the income levels, there is the possibility that they won’t recover in the timeframe we would like.”

While the Bahamas’ per capita GDP is about $25,000, high compared to neighbors like Antigua and Barbuda and Barbados, it suffers from increasing income inequality, with chronically high unemployment — nearly 15 percent for almost a decade — and a tax system that many believe favors the rich. Those without steady employment and a significant savings base may find it especially difficult to reconstruct, and will have to rely on external aid.

Butler was a bit more dire in her evaluation of the coming danger. “I look at Tortola [in the British Virgin Islands]; I look at Barbuda,” she said. “They can’t take any more hits. I don’t think no one can take any more hits.”


Leeward Islanders in NYC Scramble to Raise Hurricane Relief for Hard-Hit Virgin Islands, Barbuda

Sunday, September 3, was a festive day for the Eastern Caribbean community in New York. More than five hundred people packed Jackie Robinson Park in Harlem to celebrate the centennial of the Virgin Islands becoming a U.S. territory while they danced to soca from the St. John–based Image Band. When Trinidad’s Super Blue sang his 1991 hit “Get Something and Wave” the crowd waved the Virgin Islands’ white, gold, and blue olive-branch-and-arrows flag, and Antigua and Barbuda’s sunrise-over-sea standard.

Three days later, Hurricane Irma blasted the Antilles, killing at least 38 people. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, just east of Puerto Rico, it knocked out electric power, running water, and cellphone service on the islands of St. Thomas and St. John, home to about half the territory’s 106,000 people. “We suspect it’ll be many months before power comes back on,” says Virgin Islands congressional delegate Representative Stacey Plaskett. The islands’ water system has been “compromised,” she adds, because the storm sprayed salt water into the cisterns people use to collect and store rainwater.

The nation of Antigua and Barbuda was also hard-hit, as Irma obliterated 90 percent of the buildings on Barbuda, forcing almost all the smaller island’s 1,600 people into shelters on Antigua. Tortola, the most populous of the British Virgin Islands, “is totally destroyed,” Benny Faulkner, a Philadelphian whose family is from the British Virgin Islands, told Voice reporter Felipe De La Hoz last week.

As the Voice went to press on September 18, a second hurricane, Maria, was bearing down on the Leeward Islands, which include the Virgin Islands and Antigua and Barbuda, with Category 3 winds.

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New York’s immigrant population from these islands is not huge — it’s far smaller than that from the larger nations of Jamaica, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic — but the community quickly organized to provide hurricane relief. Virgin Islanders United, which put on the September 3 festival, is collecting donations for the “Fund for the Virgin Islands” started by the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, and Representative Plaskett has set up a page on her website for the fund as well. Antigua and Barbuda’s consulate in Manhattan is coordinating its own relief effort, with eight places to drop off nonperishable goods in the city.

The Ebenezer Pilgrim Holiness Church, at East 216th Street and White Plains Road in the Bronx, has collected almost half a shipping container’s worth of goods to send to Antigua and Barbuda, including clothing, food, school supplies, soap, and toothpaste, says Pastor John Harris. The immediate goal is “making people comfortable in the shelters,” he explains. Clothing is a bigger need than food now, because “most of them leave with just what is on their backs.”

Individuals have also leaped into action. Damien Singh and Ife Landsmark collected almost $2,000 for St. John Rescue, a volunteer emergency-response group in the Virgin Islands, by soliciting donations on the streets of Brooklyn’s Kensington neighborhood. Singh, an immigrant from Trinidad, began organizing donations after seeing posts on Facebook that “brought tears to my eyes,” he says.

Landsmark, a semi-retired psychiatrist who has family “all over the Caribbean,” says the pair collected “a dollar here, twenty dollars there,” plus contributions from a synagogue and a mosque in the neighborhood. She often had to explain that she wasn’t collecting for Texas or Florida; many people who weren’t from the islands had never heard of Tortola, Barbuda, or St. Maarten.

St. John Rescue’s GoFundMe campaign had raised $548,000 toward its $750,000 goal as of September 18. It said it had spent $70,000 on communications equipment to restore internet access to the town of Cruz Bay on St. John, $10,000 on gasoline for the island, and $50,000 to secure a helicopter.

There are tens of thousands of people with roots in the Virgin Islands in New York, says Plaskett — who grew up in Brooklyn — and the community is “very organized in terms of maintaining their culture.” Much of the help has been “very organic,” she says, with people working with business owners in the islands to ship pallets of water and goods. Diapers and toilet paper are also crucial needs, she adds.

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Logistics is another issue. Landsmark says she and Singh collected money because they were told that “they can’t use goods now; it’s just too devastated.” Pastor Harris said his church had collected money too, but was trying to “verify” the best organization to send it to.

“Everybody wants to give goods, but the goods still have to get there,” says Matthew Leonard, owner of Antigua Cargo, which expects to send at least one shipping container of clothing, water, and other supplies from its East New York headquarters. His shipping company in Miami has received a container of mattresses from Sealy and thirty generators — but to get them to the Virgin Islands and Antigua, it will still have to pay airline freight charges, port charges, and dockworkers’ and security guards’ wages.

The roads on St. John are “impassable” for trucks carrying containers, he adds, so people are using boats to bring goods from St. Croix, forty miles to the south, which was not as badly hit. From the “base camp” there, Plaskett says, small boats are bringing water, diapers, generators, and batteries to St. John, St. Thomas, and the British Virgin Islands, and bringing back evacuated children, and elderly and disabled people.

While survival is the most immediate priority, bigger problems loom as the islands try to recover. Plaskett expects that the Virgin Islands will lose out on the entire October to April tourist season, its economy’s largest source of income. Children need to go to school. Housing is another problem. “Nearly every wooden structure has suffered severe damage,” St. John Rescue wrote in an online plea. Plaskett says she is talking to U.S. Virgin Islands governor Kenneth Mapp about using cruise ships for emergency housing, and talking to Congress about establishing a “mortgage moratorium.” But to rebuild housing, especially for the poor, “we’re going to need tremendous support” from the federal government.

Virtually everyone she knows in the islands works for the tourist industry in some way, says Landsmark — as housekeepers or nannies in the all-inclusive resorts locals call “concrete jungles,” or as taxi drivers and tour guides. Fishermen, like Landsmark’s cousin whose boat was destroyed, rely on selling their catches to hotels and restaurants.

Landsmark fears that many islanders will have to emigrate, as residents of Montserrat did after volcanic eruptions in the 1990s decimated most of the island. She suggests that the “islands that were not hit” should set up a guest-worker program so hotel workers from the damaged islands “can go over the water” to continue to work in the industry and send money back home.

Antigua Cargo expects to continue collecting goods for a while and hopes to send a shipment in the coming weeks. “The sooner the better,” says company logistics specialist Danell Prescott. But “Barbuda’s going to need help for a long time.”


Puerto Rico, Cuba Slow to Recover From Irma Amid Electricity, Disease Concerns

Hurricane Irma’s wrath was as severe as its path through the Caribbean and South Florida was unpredictable. As the Category 5 hurricane approached, Puerto Ricans worried they would be left without power for months. But though Irma retained its strength for several days, with winds gusting up to 180 miles per hour, it mostly skirted north of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, instead decimating Barbuda and St. Martin before pummeling Cuba en route to Florida.

The storm still hammered Puerto Rico, killing three individuals, cutting off power for one million residents, and depriving fifty thousand of water. Many wooden houses collapsed from severe winds and fallen tree limbs. And grocery stores were barren for several days in the storm’s aftermath.

“The stores were ransacked like the Fourth of July — shelves with tuna fish, water, soft drinks, ice, and any canned food was wiped out,” says David Ortiz, director of El Puente Puerto Rico, who is based in San Juan.

Drinking water has since been restored to much of the island, and stores are reopening with new shipments of food. But electricity and internet access have been slow to return, residents said.

“Many people still on the island are without electricity, and antennas aren’t working, so communication is a problem,” says Ortiz. “When I go home, I have no access to my cellphone, but in my office near old San Juan I have everything.”

Ortiz’s group welcomes any charitable contributions for Puerto Rico. El Puente is sending donations to religious organizations that work with the commonwealth’s most vulnerable communities. Much of the work and supplies needed, he says, will go toward repairing poorly constructed homes.

“Even strong wooden houses folded up,” Ortiz says. “I think those folks will end up rebuilding with concrete where there was wood, and there are a lot of groups hoping to do this.”

East Harlem’s Community Organizations Active in Disasters is collecting nonperishable food, clothing, towels and blankets, personal hygiene items, and first aid supplies at two drop-off sites at Casabe Senior Houses (150 East 121st Street) in Manhattan and El Maestro Cultural Center (1300 Southern Boulevard) in the Bronx. Batteries are especially needed.

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While Haiti was largely spared the worst of the storm, CapraCare, a Manhattan-based nonprofit assisting with health programs there, is packaging emergency medical kits and food for rural regions in the northern part of the island.

“Right now we’re doing a lot of health education and treatment for infectious diseases and water-borne illnesses,” said CapraCare founder Jean Pierre-Louis, whose organization had only recently finished its recovery work following Hurricane Matthew. “There was heavy rain and light flooding in the particular areas that we assist.”

While Haiti was fortunate to have been missed by Hurricane Irma, Cuba bore the brunt of its destruction. At least ten people were killed in the storm and about two-thirds of the island remained without power, while 132 schools were damaged, according to Cuban state media. State media also noted that 71,000 chickens died in the storm, and more than 12,000 acres of fruit and vegetable farms were destroyed.

“Cuba is total disaster area right now,” says Liú Santiesteban, who runs the New Jersey–based nonprofit Despierta Cuba. “There is no food. There is no water, electricity, or gas or supplies almost in the whole island.”

Santiesteban and other advocates are trying to collect food and other items through nongovernmental channels such as the Catholic Church and Caritas, a grassroots anti-poverty nonprofit.

“Even if the government here opens the door to give whatever we want to give the thing is Cuba doesn’t receive it,” says Santiesteban. “Sometimes the [Cuban] government gives aid to tourists or prioritizes other people, and usually they sell everything in stores. I remember as a child seeing a whole chicken in stores with a sticker that said it was donated from the Canadian people to Cuban people.”

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Even though President Trump has walked back the more permissive U.S.-Cuba tourism regulations announced under Obama, Americans can still travel to Cuba on humanitarian missions — which Santiesteban says could significantly help the country.

“If people want to organize themselves in groups and bring medicine and food supplies that would be great,” she says. “We really need all the help we can get. The situation is disastrous.”

Additional aid for the Caribbean may be coming from Washington in the future. Manhattan Congressman Adriano Espaillat has co-sponsored a tax credit benefit for Puerto Rican and U.S. Virgin Island residents affected by Hurricane Irma, called for foreign aid to Caribbean nations in need of relief, and proposed that the U.S. grant temporary protective status to individuals from small Caribbean nations in the storm’s wake.

“I would hope we can send humanitarian aid to any nation that finds itself in peril, or finds itself in a great crisis,” said Espaillat. “I don’t see how my colleagues would object to bringing emergency help to aid the Cuban people, many of whom have seen devastation.”

Espaillat and other members also want Congress to revisit the Jones Act, which prohibits Americans — including Puerto Ricans — from buying goods from foreign ships traveling from other American ports. President Trump granted a temporary waiver for the commonwealth during the hurricane.

“I think we should take it up again,” says Espaillat. “There are provisions of the Jones Act that are a detriment to the ability of Puerto Rico to move forward, and it’s very much on the agenda of those of us who advocate for the people of Puerto Rico.”

On Monday, September 18, as Hurricane Maria threatened landfall in Puerto Rico by Wednesday, Ortiz reported that islanders had ransacked store shelves over the weekend: “There’s a lack of just about everything, canned foods, ice, water. Stores didn’t get a chance to stock up fully because a lot of ships haven’t come in yet. The little propane stoves, you can’t find them anywhere. And gas stations are quickly running out of gas.”

Maria’s biblical name doesn’t help calm fears, says Ortiz: “There aren’t enough cops to cover the intersections. And a lot of stop lights aren’t working because of Irma. This is just a bad recipe.”


Here’s How To Not Get Scammed By Hurricane Opportunists

So, your house was destroyed and it’s time to rebuild. You’re probably going to need a contractor. Unfortunately, there are a lot of slimeballs out there who will undoubtedly do whatever they can to scam hurricane victims and exploit a natural disaster for personal gain.

But there are ways to reduce the risk of getting victimized by these shameless hurricane opportunists — many of which are explained by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Last night, Schneiderman offered suggestions on how to keep New York’s hurricane victims safe from predatory scumbags looking to rip us off.

See Schneiderman’s suggestions below.


Check with your insurance company.

Before making any decisions, be clear about what will be covered and any steps you will need to take.

Ask for references, check for licenses.

Ask about local work contractors have done. Talk to the people who hired them; look at the jobs if you can. Make sure the contractor has any license required by your local government.

Estimates are important: get it in writing.

Ask that all estimates for work be in writing and include a description of the material to be used. Be clear that you will not pay for work done that is not agreed upon in writing. Verify that the material used is the same as described in the estimate. Make sure any changes to the estimate are in writing.

Know your rights

Home improvement contractors are required by law to establish to an escrow account to hold the homeowners’ un-disbursed funds when a contract is in excess of $500. Also, a homeowner has a three-day right to cancel a contract unless during an emergency, the homeowner has waived the three-day rule in writing.

Use a contractor with an address you can verify.

If your contractor is “here today and gone tomorrow,” you may find it difficult to enforce the guarantee.

Never pay the full price up front.

Establish a payment schedule and adhere to it. Withhold final payment until the entire project is completed to your satisfaction and all required inspections and certificates of occupancy are finalized.

Always be sure the contractor has valid insurance.

If a worker is injured, or damage is caused on your property, you could be held liable if your contractor does not have the required insurance.

Check with your town or city for required permits.

Don’t let a contractor work without the necessary permits. Failing to get approvals can delay your project, or prevent you from occupying a completed building.

Price Gouging: New York State law forbids those selling essential consumer goods and services — like food, water, gas, generators, batteries and flashlights, and services such as storm clean-up and disposal — from charging excessive prices during an abnormal disruption of the market. If you believe you are a victim of price gouging, contact the Attorney General’s Consumer Helpline at 800-771-7755 or find a complaint form online at:


A Few Reasons Why Overhyping Hurricane Sandy Is Probably a Good Thing

The current situation in New York: The subways are closed; upon the Hozziner’s request, Zone A has been forced to evacuate; Broadway shows have been cancelled; Bloomberg, Christie, and Cuomo are hosting storm watch conferences; my door keeps slamming by itself, even while locked; and the quieter-than-ever city is no longer open for business. But, on the Internet, a hurricane in the age of social media is like one big collective party, except with the dangling possibility of disaster. And, since a year ago is not that long ago in our cyber-minds, numerous comparisons have been made between Hurricane Sandy and Tropical Storm Irene.

Remember Irene? That $15 billion cyclone that made landfall just before Labor Day weekend last year? New York was up in arms then, too — it was the first time in history that the entire mass transit system of New York was completely shut down (the second being now) and the Internet was freaking out then, too. I have a few vague memories from that weekend: near-riot lines at the Key Food on Avenue A, a viewing party of Apocalypse Now in the darkness, a trip outside onto the streets of New York in the eye of the storm and an oddity in the city — absolute, 100 percent silence.
But, for Manhattanites, the storm was underwhelming. All this hype for what? A ton of rain and mediocre winds? Evacuation seemed silly once the storm was done and headlines that popped up the following days all blamed one thing: overhyping an event. With that in our minds, it’s only natural that we’d remind ourselves that, since Irene wasn’t that bad, Sandy won’t be that bad. And that’s really silly. Here’s why:
1. Outside of Manhattan, Irene was pretty bad. Although Manhattanites love to think that the world past the Hudson and East Rivers is nonexistent, that close-mindedness detracts from reality. As mentioned before, Hurricane Irene landed the Eastern seaboard with $15 billion worth in damages. Places that got hit really bad: Brooklyn, Long Island, Queens, the Bronx, Connecticut, New Jersey, upstate New York — basically everywhere that’s not Manhattan. I understand the idea that conducting a cost-benefit analysis of yourself is how one interprets the world and all that jazz, but just because you guys didn’t get hit as bad doesn’t mean you can act as if Irene didn’t happen at all.
2. Having one example to use as an argument doesn’t make any logical sense. In the field of comparative studies, one must keep in mind this truth: Every situation is different than the next. History repeats itself, apples and oranges, learn from your mistakes, etc. — comparison works well when you use it to make a educated conclusion about what happened and what could happen but still keep in mind the wide range of possibilities at hand. Except, to do this, you need more than two sets of evidence to work with. In other words, it seems nonsensical to say that, just because Irene didn’t play out according to our projections that one time, we can use that situation to make ultimatums about Sandy. They’re different storms — we know this because one’s named Sandy, and the other one was named Irene.
3. Eleven-foot swells. Eleven-foot swells.
4. The authorities agree with me. Even the people who tell us the weather are yelling: “GUYS! THIS ISN’T A JOKE!” Here are a couple of key phrases being tossed around: “devastating and historic,” “once-in-a-lifetime storm,” “severity,” “Jesus Christ! Save us!” and “intensity we have not seen in this part of the country in the past century.” Shots have been fired. But, then again, what’s our credibility gap with meteorologists these days?
5. There’s a full moon out. When Irene made landfall, there was a new moon. The two extremes of the cycle have direct correlations with tides. Does this really mean anything? Probably. But let us not forget that it’s Halloween (or close to it). Drama factor? Check.
6. Why risk it? With all these aforementioned reasons, what we’re really trying to get at here is asking one main question to our readers: Why risk it? Are we so tied to hating hype and following trends that we will refuse to believe a storm (scratch that, three storms in one) will live up to Irene? Think of it as time well-spent with your thoughts. You’ll be holed up in your apartment for at least 36 hours (the subways are closed; you’re not going anywhere, buddy), so create some DIY projects for yourself if you really can’t handle hibernation. Those windows need boarding. Become MacGyver for a day.
Also, like we said, in the social media age, a hurricane is one big collective party. So for our tech-savvy readers, live-tweet the whole thing or follow Hurricane Sandy on Twitter. Or make a Sandy live-blog. Or Instagram the storm from your window (actually, don’t do that). Or just watch Apocalypse Now. Yes, do that.
Except, of course, the dangling possibility of disaster. So we cannot stress this again: Please, please be careful, readers. Sandy means business.

MTA’s “Hurricane Plan” Calls For “Orderly Shutdown” If Frankenstorm’s Winds Top 39 MPH

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) just sent us its plan for what it will do if the storm that’s predicted to basically be the storm to end all storms hits New York City.

For now, the MTA is suspending construction on almost all subway construction projects it had planned for the weekend, with the exception of work planned for the 7 and J lines. Those projects are planned to conclude before the “Frankenstorm” is expected to hit the Big Apple on Sunday.

As is currently the plan, there will be no shutdown of services in advance of the storm, but officials say there will be if the storm’s winds top 39 mph.

The rest of the MTA’s plan for the storm is as follows:


New York City Transit

Most scheduled weekend subway service changes for construction
projects have been cancelled, with the exception of changes planned for
the 7 and J lines, which are now scheduled through Saturday only. Crews
are inspecting and clearing main drains and pump rooms throughout the
subway system. Personnel are checking and cleaning all known flood-prone
locations and these areas will continue to be monitored.

Extra workers and managers are prepared to staff New York City
Transit’s Incident Command Center, situation room, satellite desks,
depot operations and facility operations as necessary. The Incident
Command Center will be activated starting at 8 a.m. Sunday. Among those
present in the ICC throughout the duration of the storm will be Customer
Advocates, who will ensure that all decisions made during the event
will reflect a focus on customers. They fill a position created after
reviews of the agency’s performance during Tropical Storm Irene.

Trains will be removed from outdoor yards prone to flooding and moved
to more secure locations. Subway ventilation grates vulnerable to
flooding will be sandbagged and tarped over. Many station entrances and
ventilation grates in low-lying areas have been successfully modified in
recent years to raise them above street level, making it more difficult
for floodwaters to enter the system.

All portable pumps and emergency response vehicles will be checked,
fueled and made ready for service. Outside contractors have been asked
to prepare their work sites for heavy weather.

Bus operators are ready to move buses that normally park in low-lying depots to areas of higher ground.

Metro-North Railroad

Metro-North personnel are stockpiling material in preparation for
possible washouts or bank erosion, and are securing road crossing gates
when necessary.

Much of Metro-North’s territory runs along rivers and the Long Island
Sound With nearly 800 miles of tracks to take care of, Maintenance of
Way workers have already begun preparing for Sandy at known trouble

Culverts are being cleared of fallen limbs and other debris. Ditches
and swales are being cleaned out. Pumps are being tuned up and put in
place at known low spots such as New Haven Yard and Mott Haven Yard,
while generators at all rail yards are being fueled and tested.

Cranes and excavators and back hoes are being positioned along the
tracks, and a tree service contractor is on call to respond rapidly if

Long Island Rail Road

Long Island Rail Road is preparing facilities and infrastructure by
clearing drains, securing work sites against possible high winds,
fueling equipment, stocking supplies and making plans to move equipment
and supplies away from low-lying areas. Chain saws, generators and pumps
are ready for use as well.

The LIRR’s scheduled track work this weekend for the replacement of
concrete ties between Jamaica and Queens Village, and the resulting bus
service for Queens Village and Hollis customers, is now scheduled to end
at 11:59 PM Saturday evening.

Extra personnel will be assigned to report for duty before the storm is forecasted to make landfall on Long Island.

Crews will be prepared to remove crossing gates from LIRR crossings
in advance of the storm if necessary, to protect them from high winds
and assist in a quicker recovery. Service must be suspended if crossing
gates are removed.

Bridges and Tunnels

All roadway and drainage systems at Bridges and Tunnels facilities
are being checked and cleared of debris. Construction areas will be
secured, backup generators are in place, and wrecker trucks and other
response vehicles are readied to help motorists who may become stranded.
In addition, staffing levels were checked and emergency personnel have
been put on standby.

Motorists are advised to reduce speeds when winds are between 40 and
49 mph in dry conditions, and 30 to 49 mph in windy and wet conditions.

When the winds are 50 mph or more in dry or wet conditions, certain
vehicles will be barred from using MTA crossings. These include
motorcycles, tractor trailers, step vans, mini buses, trucks with open
backs, cars pulling trailers, motor homes and vehicles carrying plate

If there are sustained winds of 60 mph or above, the MTA may close one or more bridges to all traffic.

Capital Construction

All contractors at Capital Construction projects – East Side Access,
the Second Avenue Subway, the 7 Line Extension and Fulton Center – will
secure all materials and equipment, including cranes, to prepare for
high winds and flooding.

The MTA says it is working closely with the Governor’s office, the Mayor’s
office and state and local Offices of Emergency Management to “prepare
for the storm and respond in a coordinated manner.”

“Our first priority is always safety, and the MTA is taking no
chances with the safety of our customers, our employees and our
equipment,” said MTA Chairman and CEO Joseph J. Lhota. “We are hoping
for the best but preparing for the worst. Whatever happens, we’ll be