Over the September 23-24 weekend, news coverage and commentary was dominated by discussions over football players kneeling instead of standing for the National Anthem at NFL games across the country rather than the devastation of Puerto Rico. On September 20, Hurricane Maria struck the island commonwealth with fury, swelling rivers with record rainfall, knocking out electric power for 3.5 million people, and causing what by some accounts is “apocalyptic” destruction. The plight of Puerto Rico, which was already experiencing significant distress over debt incurred by wasteful government, in the wake of Hurricane Maria, did not merit much discussion on the principal Sunday political talk shows. 

When contacted by Spero News, Fr. Peter DiLeo-Vulic pleaded for help for his congregation of St. Spiridon, a  Byzantine Catholic-rite parish located just outside of San Juan, the island's capital. In response to an email, Father DiLeo-Vulic wrote: 

"This is a major disaster and we have suffered severe damage Please pray for us. There will be no electricity for many months!  Our generator just died. If you can find a place that sells generators and can ship to Puerto Rico, we would be grateful. We of course will pay. 

"There is water rationing. It's a mess. I'll send photos as soon as I can. Intermittent email and telephone service.

"Pray for our congregation. It's been a hard year."

ABC’s This Week, CBS’ Face the Nation, and Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday failed to focus on the massive destruction and fate of millions of Americans living in Puerto Rico. While  CNN and NBC’s Sunday shows mentioned Puerto Rico, they spent little time covering it. Nina Turner of CNN did call on President Donald Trump to “use his energy to fight for our sisters and brothers in Puerto Rico who have no power,” while Chuck Todd of NBC’s Meet the Press told viewers that they should “help your fellow Americans in Puerto Rico” and displaying information about four highly-rated charities assisting in recovery efforts.

Meteorologists indicate that rains produced by Hurricane Maria fell at a rate exceeding those of Hurricane Irma in Florida. There are estimates that in some places 90 percent of homes and businesses in Puerto Rico have suffered complete damage. Estimates of the costs are running to $30 billion. That is approximately one-third of Puerto Rico’s annual economic output in a place where 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

In just 24 hours, the hurricane took the entire power grid offline, as well as 95 percent of cellphone towers. Roads and bridges, water infrastructure, public buildings and schools, airports and seaports, and hospitals have all been severely affected. Restoring power may take up to six months. There are indications that Puerto Rico is now facing one of the worst weather events in American history.

There are fears that a dam in Guajataca, western Puerto Rico, may be about to fail. On Friday, the National Weather Service warned that 70,000 may need evacuation. Gov. Ricardo Rosello visited the area on Friday and took satellite phones to emergency officials there. As of Saturday morning, however, those officials remained unreachable. Buses have been brought in to evacuate people living below the dam which has been spewing water since last week.

The death count is now nine, according to local officials. However, there are two police officers who may have been swept away to their deaths in floodwaters on the western end of the island. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) is bringing in high capacity generators, as well as one million liters of water as well as food and medicine. There is currently sporadic service at the airport in San Juan, but some flights continue to be cancelled. Military flights are arriving on the island.

Puerto Rico's misfortune was gist for some politicians. Hillary Clinton, for example, called on President Donald Trump to send aid. "President Trump, Sec. Mattis, and DOD should send the Navy, including the USNS Comfort, to Puerto Rico now. These are American citizens," Clinton said in a Sunday morning tweet.

The US military is already on the ground in Puerto Rico, having deployed the Army Corps of Engineers' 249th Engineer Battalion to restore power on Friday. Trump is already planning to visit Puerto Rico even while because of concerns over the current state of infrastructure, the date has not yet been set. Four thousand US Army Reserve members have been deployed to the island, according to the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration. In addition, more than 1,600 National Guard members have responded to Hurricane Maria. US Northern Command, which provides military support for civil authorities, is also working with FEMA and government officials.  Last week, Trump issued a disaster declaration for Puerto Rico and ordered federal assistance for the devastated island.



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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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