GUAJATACA DAM, Puerto Rico —While President Donald Trump was threatening to pull the military out of Puerto Rico, the military was putting in a heroic effort to stop a dam from totally collapsing and killing thousands.
“We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!” he tweeted Thursday morning.
On Tuesday, a Chinook helicopter carrying four gigantic sandbags on a 40-foot tether, clustered like a garlic clove, to its target: an enormous sinkhole where the spillway from the Guajataca Dam had collapsed. The chopper held steady in place until the cords holding the 3,500-pound sandbags were motionless and perpendicular to the ground. Then with pinpoint precision lowered its 14,000-pound load right next to another bundle on the ground. A second Chinook followed, repeating the same maneuver, then a third.
Only the might of the U.S. military is capable of stabilizing the 93-year-old dam in the mountainous northwestern part of Puerto Rico where it supplies water to more than 350,000 residents.
“The operation is all consuming, we’re going to be here for a while,” said Lt. Col Roberto Solozarno of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The massive amount of water unleashed by Hurricane Maria came crashing down on the spillway, busting the levered canal that releases water from the reservoir at a set level. The edges fell back causing a gigantic sinkhole from which torrents of water threatened to engulf the communities below. Not just the sinkhole, but the continued erosion of the land below the dam—called sloughing—is dangerously approaching the reservoir.
“If it sloughs, you’ll lose the dam,” said David Peterson, the Army Corps of Engineers chief emergency manager, “the situation is critical.”
Trump viciously accused Puerto Rico of having infrastructure problems before Maria.
“Puerto Rico survived the Hurricanes, now a financial crisis looms largely of their own making,” he tweeted, supposedly quoting a disgraced journalist.
Puerto Rico had infrastructure problems, but so did Houston before Hurricane Harvey —no zoning, decades of homes built along reservoirs prone to overflowing, inadequate spillways—but Trump didn’t criticize them, and FEMA expects to stay there for years.
While Puerto Rico’s electrical grid was frail, Trump would pull the plug when 90 percent of the island is without electricity. Power won’t be fully restored until next year, far too late for thousands of Puerto Ricans who are leaving the island for the mainland, perhaps to never return.
When he visited in September, Trump accused Puerto Rico of “costing a lot of money” and “breaking his budget.” The president even said Puerto Rico “should be grateful” for losing what was tallied officially as 16 people to the horrific storm—an early figure that is still increasing since there is no communication on the island— compared to Harvey, Irma, and Katrina. And when Trump was present to actually help first hand, he threw rolls of paper towels at hurricane refugees bussed in to see him like they were lepers.
“Have a good time” were Trump’s parting words.
Puerto Rico is in dire straits, having filed bankruptcy last May over its $70 billion national debt, largely owned by hedge funds that charged Puerto high interest rates for loans, while benefiting from a historical low-interest rate. Trump’s response is that Puerto Rico needs to repay Wall Street.
But the island of American citizens has suffered from a second-class treatment. Residents can’t vote in federal elections, and they don’t pay federal taxes, but they also can’t get waivers and block grants available for Texas and Florida. (Congress is about to vote on a $1 billion adjustment, essentially a cut, to Puerto Rico’s Medicaid system, which has been neglected for decades.)
Puerto Rico has gone on offense, sending requests to the Trump administration for federal relief programs that it says it is entitled to. On Tuesday, Gov. Ricardo Rossallo said the administration had “acojio” (the Spanish equivalent of “acquiesced”) a request for a $4.9 billion Community Disaster Loan. “We hope to receive this help in addition to funds from various federal programs that would alleviate and help rebuild Puerto Rico on a short- and long-term plan,” Rosello said.
The question remains whether Trump speaks — or tweets — for the administration he leads. A month ago, he said of Puerto Rico, “We will not rest until that job is done” and last week, Vice President Pence said, “We’re here for the long haul.”
Only time will tell if they are telling the truth.