Will Hurricane Maria Defeat Donald Trump?

Will Hurricane Maria Defeat Donald Trump?
AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
Will Hurricane Maria Defeat Donald Trump?
AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Two years later, this island's long, slow recovery after Hurricane Maria is set to loom large in 2020: Tens of thousands of furious Puerto Rican survivors now living in Florida may deny President Trump the Sunshine State’s 29 electoral votes, and therefore his re-election -- something the White House and the campaign must address immediately.

I have worked on behalf of storm survivors for 10 years, and compared to historic hurricanes on the mainland, Hurricane Maria is the worst recovery I've ever witnessed. More experienced experts tell me they've also never seen anything like it. There have been FEMA problems, of course, but in Puerto Rico the insurance companies are destroying the island’s economy.

September 20 is the anniversary of the storm and is thought by many to be legally the last day victims may file suit to recover damages. In recent weeks, some government agencies and municipalities have done so. Those who didn't sue may believe insurers, who told them FEMA will pay for damages above their insurance settlement.

According to the federal Stafford Act, FEMA absolutely cannot do so. This mistake may bankrupt dozens of municipalities. The Democrats know this and plan to blame the president, especially in Florida.

Since Trump's 112,000-vote margin of victory there over Hillary Clinton, Republican fortunes have waned in the state: In 2018, Ron DeSantis won the governor’s race won by only 33,000 votes and Rick Scott was elected senator by just 10,000. That’s a terrible GOP trend heading toward 2020.

By credible estimates, 100,000 displaced Puerto Ricans have moved to Florida and registered to vote since Hurricane Maria largely destroyed their island. Orlando-area Democrats are accomplishing this with a continuing registration drive along the I-4 corridor, including official government outreach efforts.

By most analyses, the state is a must-win for the president. With a hundred thousand additional Puerto Rican voters enflamed by a smart Democrat strategy, it's an imaginable loss.

The bad news for Trump starts with the intransigence of foreign insurance firms, such as MAPFRE Praico Insurance Co. of Spain, one of the largest insurers operating in Puerto Rico. It is offering customers -- homeowners, businesses, government agencies, and even municipalities – less than 10% of the damages they claim. In the mainland United States, where MAPFRE is expanding, they wouldn’t think to treat customers this way.

In a unique and aggressive strategy, MAPFRE is actually suing Puerto Rican municipalities for filing to get paid for actual damages they are owed. In response to the city of Cabo Rojo's refusal to take less than 10%, the insurance giant sued the city for fraud. I seriously doubt MAPFRE, now active in states such as Ohio, would ever sue the City of Columbus. But anything goes in Puerto Rico.

FEMA is also at fault. In early September, there were fraud and bribery arrests at the agency, with money skimmed from the fund designated to rebuild the island's electrical grid, a basic service still not on line. We suffer daily blackouts, dozens of substations are still off line, and up to 40% of the electrical service is still produced by diesel guzzling generators with fuel paid for by U.S. taxpayers. Puerto Rico will never recover until the electric grid is fixed.

FEMA has dropped the ball on delivering money and services, too. As usual after a disaster, federal resources flow through one state-run agency. These bureaucrats haven't disbursed most of the federal cash already granted, and they're clawing back what they've given out with paperwork games. They haven't even paid for the initial cleanup, the high cost of which has been borne by the island's mayors and their municipalities.

The 78 municipalities of Puerto Rico suffered billions of dollars in damage, and they are being abused perhaps the most. Because it looks like less than 10% of damages will be paid by insurers, and since the rest can’t be recovered from FEMA, many cities will likely go bankrupt. Essential services will collapse. This alone will destroy Puerto Rico.

Maria also destroyed hundreds of high-rise apartment buildings, a popular housing option here. Condo boards got "take it or leave it" offers of less than 10% of damages, too, and today countless families are living in terrible conditions. Their buildings may never be repaired, and the value these families built up in their properties will vanish.

Destroying the core savings of Puerto Rico's families can stall the island's already-troubled economy all by itself, but in concert with bankrupted municipalities and a failed electricity grid, this perfect storm can finish off an island decimated by Hurricane Maria -- and may swamp President Trump's re-election effort in its wake.

A former senior campaign adviser to President Trump, Michael Caputo is managing director of Zeppelin Communications.

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