Puerto Rico’s devastation in the wake Hurricane Maria has dominated the news over the past week. But a false narrative has crept in, crowding out the truth about what is actually unfolding. And the true story is worth sharing, even if the politicized narrative is more captivating on social media.
Last week, I had the opportunity to tour NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, in Colorado. The officials with whom I met shared what NORAD and USNORTHCOM are doing in the rescue operations for Puerto Rico.
Even before the storm, Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was in poor shape, but with the enormous damage to the roads and airports, getting supplies to — and around — the island has presented additional and unique challenges that were not present in Texas and Florida during last month’s hurricanes.
On Tuesday, President Trump visited Puerto Rico, where the island was still without power and nearly half of Puerto Rico was still without drinking water.
With the backdrop of that escalating humanitarian crisis, four dominant myths have emerged in the media over the past week. Each deserves careful inspection.
The first myth is that the federal government is not doing anything. This is a politically charged accusation, leveled chiefly at President Trump, but also at his entire administration. While the mainstream media outlets have been quick to characterize Mr. Trump’s response to Puerto Rico’s humanitarian crisis as dismissive and aloof, the truth is that there are more than 10,000 federal government employees on the ground in Puerto Rico. Those employees are all assisting with the search and rescue operations, and also working on the pressing issue of restoring power.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has set up seven temporary medical sites on the island, all with the goal of assisting local hospitals.
FEMA, meanwhile, has provided millions of meals and millions of liters of water.
Before the hurricane even hit, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was already on the ground to begin addressing the power needs.
The bottom line? The federal government has not neglected or ignored Puerto Rico, despite what appears on CNN’s social media feed.
A second myth that has emerged is that the federal government has not learned from and improved upon anything from Hurricane Katrina and other recent natural disasters. In reality, and as I learned firsthand at NORAD’s headquarters, the federal government’s response has improved after each of the major natural disasters since Katrina in 2005. The federal government has learned and adapted, and has improved not only its responses to these types of crises, but, significantly, has improved its pre-storm proactive responses and preparations. Credit here goes to former Presidents Bush and Obama as well as to Mr. Trump. No doubt, those who work to provide relief when disaster strikes will learn from the disaster in Puerto Rico, and improve even more in the future.
The third prevailing myth is that government is capable of doing everything. This myth is the flip side of the coin that the federal government is not doing anything. After all, a government that is theoretically capable of doing anything can be more severely criticized for the perception that it is doing nothing. Government, as we know, has the responsibility to prevent what it can prevent, mitigate the damage during the crisis, and then move swiftly with rescue, recovery and rebuilding. But this notion that government can save us from every conceivable natural disaster, or reduce the casualties of every disaster to zero, is a falsehood that only fuels the narrative that government is underperforming in its response.
The fourth and final myth in the media is much subtler and more difficult to discern. The media has pushed the idea that federalism is an antiquated, and even harmful, holdover. The truth is that our system of federalism enables the federal government to come alongside states’ and territories’ local governments and to assist in the most efficient way possible. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello, in an interview on CNN, articulated this point quite well. “First of all, we are very grateful for the administration. They have responded quickly. The president has been very attentive to the situation, personally calling me several times. FEMA and the FEMA director have been here in Puerto Rico twice. As a matter of fact, they were here with us today, making sure that all the resources in FEMA were working in conjunction with the central government. We have been working together. We have been getting results.”
Getting results through the partnerships between the federal and local governments — that’s one of the chief benefits of our system of federalism.
As the head of Tea Party Patriots, an organization that routinely calls for scaling down the federal government, I may seem an unlikely champion for the federal government. But one of the reasons conservatives call for scaling down the superfluous activities of the federal government (and the sprawling growth of the federal government into our everyday lives) is that there is a necessary and proper role for the federal government — and that when government tries to do things it shouldn’t be doing, it overreaches, stretches resources, loses focus, and reduces its ability to do that which it should be doing. And in this instance, the federal government is showcasing a positive side that is almost entirely ignored by the media.
It’s unlikely you’ll hear anything remotely close to this perspective in the mainstream media anytime soon.