Three years ago today, I arrived in Puerto Rico. It was five days after Hurricane Maria had made landfall. The island was decimated, with much of its infrastructure reduced to rubble by the storm and an eventual death toll close to 3,000. On Sept. 21, 2017 Donald Trump said to reporters that most of the island was “destroyed.”
Then, he went to his golf club in New Jersey for the weekend.
I landed in San Juan on the same day the first U.S. officials arrived to survey the damage. Some towns had 80 percent to 90 percent of their buildings destroyed, and only 15 percent of the island’s hospitals were open — with surgeons, in many cases, operating under the light of their cell phones — but the isla del encanto was already coming together. Restaurant owners and chefs pooled ingredients and did what those in our profession know best: We started cooking nourishing cauldrons of sancocho and steaming trays of pastelón de carne to serve to hungry neighbors lined up in the streets.
True character reveals itself in moments of crisis, and Puerto Ricans proved themselves to be strong, resilient and brave. When the Trump administration abandoned its own citizens, Puerto Rico fed Puerto Rico.
Trump did not arrive until Oct. 3, almost two weeks after the hurricane hit. He used his visit to misinform the public about the reality of the damage and the inadequacy of his response. As Puerto Ricans went hungry, thirsty and literally died powerless, as electrical outages stopped life-saving medical machinery, Trump threw rolls of paper towels into a crowd like prizes at a fair, and rated his response as “an A+” and “an unsung success.” As the death toll rose because of the federal government’s inaction, he claimed it was all a conspiracy designed to make him look bad.
The Trump administration’s indefensible dereliction after Hurricane Maria was a prelude to what we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, on this anniversary of my arrival to provide hot meals to the people of Puerto Rico, the United States is in another crisis. In April, unemployment was higher than it had been in 90 years, and people still are struggling to provide for their families. More than 14 million children going hungry each week. Once again, we see Americans coming together to help one another, but the problem is too massive for local restaurant owners, food pantries and churches to solve alone. We are in the midst of a true hunger emergency.
In the past six months, we have seen one of the most startling and lethal abdications of leadership imaginable. At a time when we needed a national plan, we got none. When we needed someone to level with us honestly and directly, we got calculated misinformation. When we needed someone to care more about us then himself, we got precisely the opposite. And when you have a president who doesn’t care and who can’t do the job, then our fellow Americans lose their lives.
Whether it’s a hurricane or this pandemic, we don’t choose what crisis may strike. But we do choose the leaders who respond. In Trump, we have a president incapable of leadership, whose fragile ego caused him to withhold federal hurricane recovery aid resulting in cuts to food stamps to 1.3 million hungry residents of Puerto Rico.
It’s easy to imagine how Joe Biden would have responded differently. He has lived a life guided by empathy, and inspired others to do the same. He believes in restoring to the American people the chance to provide for their families. Not just because there is dignity in that, but equity.
As president, Biden will break down the economic barriers keeping families hungry, protect the essential workers who pick our produce and stock our supermarket shelves and invest in a more-sustainable food system. Building better policies to fight hunger leads to job growth, better education outcomes and greater economic mobility. While strong communities build resilience, so does just policy. The Biden-Harris plan for recovery for Puerto Rico, just like their plan for the entire United States, will restore the promise of opportunity on which our great country was founded.
Three years after Hurricane Maria and as ballots are mailed out in Florida, Trump’s last-ditch attempt to woo Puerto Rican voters is too little, too late. You need look no further than the administration’s ongoing efforts to strip SNAP benefits and affordable healthcare from a grieving island to see that Trump’s damage is already done. This fall, we can cast our ballots for decency and empathy, for a better tomorrow, for a president capable of leading and who listens to the experts to keep our loved ones safe. That is Joe Biden.
José Andrés is a chef, restaurateur and founder of World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that provides meals in the wake of natural disasters.