The contrast Thursday on Puerto Rico could not have been clearer, with President Donald Trump threatening to shut down the federal relief efforts even as public and private leaders in Tampa Bay look for new ways to rush needed supplies to the island. In short, one man was reacting to searing criticism of his leadership in Puerto Rico while one community turned its attention instead to the human crisis from Hurricane Maria.
The differences in substance and style are alarming given how devastated the island remains three weeks after Maria blew ashore, leaving scores dead or missing, drowning villages in hip-deep floods and leaving the vast majority of Puerto Rico's 3.4 million people still without power, running water, medicine and other everyday essentials.
In a series of tweets Thursday, Trump threatened to pull back on the relief effort, declaring that recovery workers would not stay "forever," and blaming Puerto Rico for making the recovery even worse. "Electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes," Trump tweeted. He also said that Puerto Rico had to face a financial crisis "largely of their own making."
Puerto Rico has faced a fiscal crisis for years, but bringing it up when most residents there still don't have power, drinking water or critical supplies was beyond insensitive. And it comes after Trump has faced sharp criticism for the breadth and pace of the relief effort on the U.S. territory. He was personally lambasted for his behavior last week after he hurled rolls of paper towels like basketballs at Puerto Ricans during a press event. The relief effort will be a long, costly and grinding one, and Trump's tweets only fueled more outrage and despair on the island.
A team from Tampa Bay set a far different tone and was far more productive. After returning from a one-day survey trip last week, Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, began planning a resupply visit. As the Tampa Bay Times' Tracey McManus reported, Cruz began by asking the Tampa Bay Rays if they could help pay for a barge to deliver water, medical supplies and food to residents in rural areas still waiting for aid. Rays senior director of public affairs, Rafaela Amador Fink, said she wanted to do more. The team has players and staff with deep community ties to the island, and it arranged a charter flight for a relief mission.
The Boeing aircraft that flew Wednesday from Tampa carried 11 generators and thousands of pounds of water, rations and other supplies, including four vapor containers to ferry vials of cancerous tissue samples from a lab in Puerto Rico to the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa for safekeeping. While crews unloaded the supplies from the Rays' jet, Cruz and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman visited a local shelter, where Cruz untied her own blue Nikes and gave them to a woman left with only dirty flipflops.
Rays pitcher Xavier Cedeno took the flight and stayed on the island to help with the recovery in his hometown of Guayanilla. In the past week, doctors from the University of South Florida surveyed rural areas and made lists of critical supplies. More relief flights are planned. Earlier this month, Tampa cardiologist Kiran Patel offered the use of his plane for a mission that brought about 6,000 pounds of food and other essentials to the island. "It's society's problem," Patel said, "and we all have to act."
Puerto Ricans are American citizens, and a recognition we are in this together is what the island needs. It is hard to imagine that Trump would threaten to pull the plug on hurricane recovery efforts in Texas or Florida. It was bad timing for another insensitive tweet from the president, and Tampa Bay is setting an example of genuine empathy and real assistance for our fellow Americans that Washington should follow.