Residents of Puerto Rico are running out of potable water and only 16 percent of the island has electricity in the wake of Hurricane Maria. “And then you have Agent Orange throwing paper towels at people?” Rosario Dawson, whose mother is Puerto Rican and Cuban, says grimly. I was speaking to her after we did a panel together for the Audible book of Andy Weir’s Artemis, which she voiced; she was laughing out of disbelief. “That’s not even food or water. It’s not a phone. I don’t even understand what he thinks people are supposed to do with that! Are they supposed to use those to sop up all the flood waters and the mud? There was someone who was taking the piss when they were like, ‘Hey, throw these. This is really helpful.’” She’s seen the many memes out there and would like the internet to know that she appreciates its work. “I saw a picture where someone had him superimposed where he’s supposed to be Marie Antoinette, like ‘Let them eat cake,’ and it was just a tray with paper towels. It was so silly and great.”
Meanwhile, Dawson says that she still doesn’t know the whereabouts of much of her Puerto Rican family. “We only just started getting in touch with aunts and uncles who are in their 80s, who were in the major cities,” she says. “That was really good to hear, but a lot of the family in the outer communities we haven’t heard from. And the ones we have heard from, it took days.” What she does know is that paper towels are pretty low on their list of essentials. “They’re running out of water,” she says. “One of the things I’m hearing, which is really devastating, is that the power lines and Wi-Fi that are going in are being taken down because there are criminal factions that are taking this opportunity to continue looting and taking advantage of the chaos.”
She pointed out there are still crises to address in Haiti, Sierra Leone, the Virgin Islands, and Mexico City. “Yes, Puerto Rico is incredibly important,” she says. “My family’s there. These are Americans — for people who care about that distinction. But as we keep moving on trend-wise and hashtag-wise to other issues, we need to remember that these are things that take a long time to make a difference. It’s going to be several months until there’s even full power in Puerto Rico. The hurricane pretty much wiped the island clean, so there’s no potential to even grow food or anything.”
Dawson was most devastated about the White House’s refusal to extend its waiver of the Jones Act, a 1920 law that mandates only American vessels can ship cargo to any U.S. ports, including Puerto Rico’s. In this crisis, it has crippled the ability to have cheaper, readily available foreign ships transport relief supplies to remote parts of the island, where the trucking industry is now nonexistent. “Getting rid of the Jones Act could’ve made a proper impact,” says Dawson. “The fact that it was only lifted for ten days is absurd in light of the actual tragedy of what’s happening there and what’s necessary.”
Trump’s “not my problem” attitude toward Puerto Rico, says Dawson, “is detrimental, but it’s not the first time you’ve seen this insensitivity from this person.” And she thinks it’s ironic that he would compare the Puerto Rican disaster, lightly, to a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina. All she sees are similarities: “What you saw in Katrina was that we allowed certain people and certain demographics and certain communities to be helped and other ones to not. This is where your start to see it in really grave and obvious terms, but this is the same conversation around health care and access to it, and education.” As we were at the panel, she’d gotten the news alert that Jeff Sessions had declared that civil-rights laws don’t apply to transgender workers, and threw up her hands.
“All of those things are interconnected,” she says.