Some in Houston wary of helping Puerto Rico
By JENNA JOHNSON | The Washington Post | Published: October 21, 2017
HOUSTON — Sitting on Mary Maddox's back porch, which flooded with 22 inches of water when Hurricane Harvey hit nearly two months ago, is a Lady of the Night plant from Puerto Rico that a friend gave her. Ever since Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, she says, she has paused at the blooming plant when she passes it, rubbing a leaf and saying a prayer for those still without water or electricity.
Often, the prayer is accompanied by frustration with President Donald Trump, whom she voted for and who visited this neighborhood after Harvey.
"He really made me mad," said Maddox, 70, who accused Trump of trying to pit those on the mainland against Puerto Ricans, even though they're all Americans.
"I don't know," said her husband, Fred Maddox, 75. "I think he's trying."
He continued: "It's a problem, but they need to handle it. It shouldn't be up to us, really. I don't think so. They're sitting back, they're taking the money, they're taking a little under the table. He's trying to wake them up: Do your job. Be responsible."
The divide in the Maddox household is one playing out across the country, as those who voted for the president debate how much support the federal government should give Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory without a voting member of Congress that is not allowed to vote in presidential elections.
Some supporters of the president, like Fred Maddox, agree with Trump that Puerto Rico's infrastructure was frail before the storm; that the crisis was worsened by a lack of leadership there; and that the federal government should limit its involvement in the rebuilding effort, which will likely cost billions of dollars. But others, like Mary Maddox, are appalled by how the president talks about Puerto Rico and say the United States has a moral obligation to take care of its citizens.
A survey released last week by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that a majority of Americans believe that the federal government has been too slow to respond in Puerto Rico and that the island still isn't getting the help it needs. But the results largely broke along party lines: While nearly three-quarters of Democrats said the federal government isn't doing enough, almost three-quarters of Republicans said it is.
It has been two months since Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and Gulf Coast states, and more than a month since Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico.
On Oct. 3 – two weeks after the storm – Trump toured a neighborhood outside San Juan, Puerto Rico, and has repeatedly proclaimed, against much evidence, that his administration had a "tremendous" response to Maria. He gave his administration a "10" during a White House appearance with Puerto Rico's governor this week. "I think we did a fantastic job, and we're being given credit," he said.
In fact, conditions remain dire throughout much of the island. Nearly 80 percent of Puerto Ricans still lack electricity, and 30 percent do not have access to clean drinking water.
Here in the Maddoxes' neighborhood of Sageglen, by contrast, life is slowly returning to normal. On Sept. 2, just after the storm, Trump briefly toured Sageglen – a middle-class enclave on the southern edge of Houston – and announced in a cul-de-sac piled with Sheetrock debris and trash bags: "These are people that have done a fantastic job holding it together."
There's still a near-constant sound of construction in the neighborhood, which is filled with ranch-style and modest two-story homes. But there are no longer mountains of debris on the curbs, thanks to the local municipal utility district, which shared the cost of removal with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. There are brand-new cars sitting in several driveways, thanks to car-insurance companies quickly totaling flooded vehicles and local dealers offering flood deals.
Those in the neighborhood without flood insurance were able to apply for and receive assistance from FEMA – including the Maddoxes, who recently had $14,000 in federal money land in their checking account.
In the nearly two decades that the Maddoxes have lived in their ranch house on Sagelink Circle, they had seen no need for flood insurance. And, after recently helping one of their daughters pay legal fees for a divorce, the couple's savings isn't what it once was.
"I'm very appreciative to FEMA. I really, really am," said Mary Maddox, who has been married for more than 50 years and raised five children. "I was just so excited when I saw that they loved us."
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On a recent afternoon on nearby Sagelink Court, David Hogg stopped by the driveway of his neighbor Donna Ramirez, showing her the latest handful of screws he had collected from the cul-de-sac.
Hogg and his wife, Patsy Hogg, have had flood insurance for decades after watching water come dangerously close to flooding the first floor of their two-story home soon after they moved to the neighborhood in the late 1970s. They now pay about $450 per year.
Ramirez and her husband also said they thought that they had flood insurance on their home, which they bought a year ago, only to learn weeks after the storm that they did not.
To Ramirez, the role of the government is to broadly coordinate relief efforts and ensure that insurance companies are fulfilling their obligations to policyholders, but that people should take personal responsibility for their property or look to churches or charities for assistance.
"Do other people think that other people should pay for me to fix my house? Because it's not their fault that I flooded," said Ramirez, taking a break from sorting through soggy research documents in her garage.
Ramirez, who describes herself as a "throw-the-dice-type voter," said she reluctantly voted for Trump in November – although her support deepened after meeting Trump in her cul-de-sac about a month ago.
"In person, he's totally different than on TV, and he gave us just such a feeling of confidence, like we weren't forgotten about," said Ramirez, who has one grown daughter. "He talked directly at a lot of people in the crowd, and his word for me was: 'Don't lose hope, you're going to be all right.' "
Ramirez worries that when the government makes money easily available after a natural disaster, there's an opportunity for corruption and a chance that some people will take more than they need. And she thinks that media coverage of the crisis in Puerto Rico has lacked context, especially in reporting that nearly all of the island is still without electricity.
"Guess what? There's a big chunk of the population that lives without electricity all the time," Ramirez said, saying she was sharing the experiences of a friend who has family on the island.
Hogg, 76, nodded his head in agreement: "They never had it. Never had it."
"They don't live deprived, because it's a beautiful environment," she continued. "The weather is nice, the climate is good most of the time, so it's different from here . . . It works there because of the climate. It wouldn't work here."
About 96 percent of Puerto Rico's electricity customers had service before Maria made landfall, according to federal data; many of the rest had no power because of Hurricane Irma two weeks earlier.
Ramirez said the government should encourage those living in the hardest-hit areas to move to the mainland, out of the direct path of hurricanes and into communities with more-reliable infrastructure.
"I object. I object. They should stay where they are and fix their own country up," Hogg responded softly, shaking his head, wrongly referring to the U.S. territory as a separate nation.
Later in the day, as Hogg and his wife sat in their garage workshop, they again debated where the government's role starts and ends. Patsy Hogg said she's trying to figure out where, exactly, she stands. She's worried about the ever-growing national debt, but she can't stand to see people suffer.
Both are longtime Republicans, although lately they consider themselves first and foremost "Trumpsters." Patsy Hogg described meeting the president and his wife, who gave her a hug, as a blessing from God.
"We love Trump," she said. "We voted for him. We pray for him every day."
The couple agrees that the president needs to be more careful with what he says on Twitter, especially when it comes to Puerto Rico.
But David Hogg, a retired electrical engineer who once worked at NASA, also said that Puerto Ricans' "lack of responsibility is not an emergency on my part." The same goes for Texans without flood insurance, he said.
His wife frowned, stared at him and asked: "So you have no mercy?"
"Uh-uh. No mercy," he said. "They should do what I do: Spend the money, get insurance."
Patsy Hogg said one of their friends at their Baptist church, a retired single woman, didn't have flood insurance when her two-story townhouse flooded and that FEMA quickly provided her with some money.
"I was glad that they did that. That made me feel good," Patsy Hogg said. "She's certainly not destitute, but I'm just really glad that they did that. If that's my tax dollars at work, I'm okay with that."
She then came to her husband's defense: "And he's not really as hardhearted as he sounds. He was very glad when he learned that they had given her money."
The Maddoxes, who live in the next cul-de-sac over from the Hoggs, were away from home when Trump visited. They struggled to get back into the neighborhood until after his motorcade had left.
The couple, both "cradle Catholics" and longtime Republicans, cannot remember a time when they disagreed about politics, like they do now. Mary Maddox has hit the point where she believes Trump needs to be impeached and replaced with someone who will unite and heal the country.
"I get so disgusted," she said, sitting at her dining room table. "He is like a 13-year-old girl, tweeting and everything. I just want him to act his age and be nice to people and bring the country together. I voted for the man, but I'm just – I want our country to be friendly."
Fred Maddox, who is retired from inspecting commercial airline planes, says he doesn't agree with many of the things Trump flippantly says, but he still believes in the president and would vote for him again. He likes having a businessman in office, especially one who's not afraid to speak the painful truth – even if that means publicly calling out Puerto Rican officials during a crisis.
"It's time," he said, "we had someone in there to fight for us."
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.