To say the White House has been slow to respond to the massive humanitarian crisis happening in Puerto Rico right now is an understatement.
A week after the Category 4 storm devastated the island, more than half of its residents still have no drinking water or cellphone service, and nearly all private homes and businesses have no power. Meanwhile, President Trump has authorized only the minimal response to help the US territory through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
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Initially, the voices of concern came from Puerto Ricans living in the United States, who couldn't communicate with their relatives back home. They shared panicked messages on Facebook seeking updates from family members.
As the days passed, news reports began to describe mass hysteria on the island. Entire communities had run out of food and water. The pressure grew stronger. Americans asked the president to do specific things: A finance administrator in Colorado launched a social media campaign to urge the military to send a naval medical ship to the island. A law student in Florida got 500,000 signatures on a letter asking Trump to waive restrictions on ships delivering goods to Puerto Rico.
Trump eventually gave in to the repeated requests. The ship, the USNS Comfort, is scheduled to arrive next week. Trump temporarily waived the Jones Act, a 97-year-old law that makes it expensive to ship goods from the mainland to Puerto Rico.
These moves show how powerful public opinion can be in persuading political leaders to take action. They also highlight how dysfunctional the White House has become in responding effectively to major crises — even when it's a matter of life or death for millions of US citizens.
"People should keep putting pressure on their elected officials to make sure Puerto Rico is not forgotten," said Rick Trilsch, who created a petition asking the military to send the USNS Comfort to Puerto Rico. "Democracy only works if you take part of it."