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Why fewer Americans are interested in Hurricane Maria's impact on Puerto Rico, compared to Irma and Harvey

While there are 3.4 million Americans who live on the island, many in the rest of the country still see Puerto Ricans as foreigners. Here's 5 revealing data points that may reveal this.
26 Sep 2017 – 06:19 PM EDT
José García Vicente standing by the ruins of his house destroyed by Hurricane Maria in Aibonito, Puerto Rico. Crédito: AO

More than 3.4 million Americans in Puerto Rico are suffering the worst natural disaster in almost a century after the passage of Hurricane Maria on Wednesday of last week.

The rest of the country appears far less concerned about their fate than the dramas in Texas or Florida, also recently hit by hurricanes (Harvey and Irma). That's what the data reveals, such as polling and media coverage, as well as the response from President Donald Trump. Here are five indices:

1. "Puerto Ricans are foreigners"

Polls show that about half of Americans believe that Puerto Ricans are not Americans.

A survey of 2,000 Americans by Morning Consult published Tuesday reveals that only 54 per cent of Americans are aware that residents of Puerto Rico are Americans. The result is similar to a March Suffolk poll showing that only 47 per cent of Americans identify Puerto Ricans as fellow citizens.

Lack of identification is relevant because Americans support cuts to foreign aid when asked about spending priorities.

The Morning Consult survey shows that more than 8 out of 10 Americans who know that Puerto Ricans are Americans support federal aid to the island. That's compared to only 4 in 10 Americans who are unaware of Puerto Rican's citizenship.

The confusion is due in part to the complicated legal status of Puerto Rico. The island is not a state, but is officially a colonial-like commonwealth or "U.S. territory," which partially explains why some people do not consider it part of the United States.

However, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, like any other person born in the 50 states. This was established in the Nationality Act of 1940. The only difference is that they cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections, unless they are registered in one of the 50 states, and its sole member of Congress has no voting rights.

Anyone born on the island from January 13, 1941 is considered an American citizen by birth. Puerto Ricans born between April 11, 1899 and January 13, 1941 became Americans when the law was passed.

2. Fewer Google Searches

This Axios chart made with Google Trends data shows that Google searches for Hurricane Maria are much lower than Hurricane Irma (which hit Florida) and Harvey (which hit Texas).

Axios says that this data does not include searches made in Puerto Rico.

3. Less media coverage

English-speaking media have devoted much less space to Maria's coverage than to Hurricane Harvey or Irma. The island was devastated last week by flooding, power outages and loss of cellphone coverage. A dam also potentially threatened 70,000 people at the weekend, according to local officials. But TV news channels and major newspapers, with a handful of exceptions, gave more weight to Trump's spat with kneeling National Football League (NFL) players.

By comparison, coverage of Irma and Harvey was barely interrupted by the major news media. For example, in response to Trump's pardon of ex-Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, which was announced just prior to Harvey's strike in Texas, TV stations opted for split-screen coverage.

Despite extensive destruction on the island, the five political shows on Sunday morning spent less than a minute in total to cover Puerto Rico, according to a score by Media Matters.

The shows This Week (ABC), Face the Nation (CBS) and Fox News Sunday (Fox News) did not even mention Puerto Rico.

CNN and NBC mentioned the story, but gave it minimum time. In CNN's State of the Union, Nina Turner, president of the left-wing group Our Revolution, implored President Donald Trump to "use her energy to fight for our sisters and brothers in Puerto Rico who have no power."

On NBC's Meet the Press, moderator Chuck Todd closed the show by telling his viewers how they could "help their fellow Americans in Puerto Rico" and displayed contact information for four of the top charities helping in the recovery efforts.

In its morning briefing newsletter on Sunday the New York Times listed Puerto Rico as its 4th item after North Korea, Iran's missile test, and Trump's NFL tiff.

4. President Trump’s slower response

After days of Trump tweeting about the NFL, the White House announced the president will visit the island next Tuesday, 13 days after Hurricane Maria made landfall.

The announcement was made after Trump came under fire for his lukewarm response to the disaster. "Puerto Rico is very important to me," Trump said, announcing his visit. "The people are fantastic. I grew up in New York so I know many Puerto Rican people."

Trump said next Tuesday was the "earliest I can go without disrupting relief efforts." Trump also had a White House Situation Room briefing on Puerto Rico on Tuesday.

However, Trump visited Texas on Tuesday Aug 29, just four days after the state was pounded by Harvey, and returned on Saturday Sept 2 to meet with survivors and learn about efforts.

He went to Florida on Thursday Sept 14, just five days after Irma made landfall in the state.

The President has paid more attention to other less urgent topics. Trump published no tweets on Puerto Rico between Wednesday last week and Monday night (Sept 25). Within that timeframe, he tweeted 20 times about his row with athletes over the flag.

Trump has explained the slower response of the federal administration to the crisis blaming geography and the island’s infrastructure and financial problems.

“The difference is this is an island sitting in the middle of an ocean,” Trump said Tuesday during a meeting with lawmakers over the tax reform. It's a big ocean; it's a very big ocean. And we're doing a really good job.”

FEMA director, Brock Longs, and Tom Bossert, Trump’s advisor for national security, visited the island on Monday to assess the situation and report about the island’s needs.

5. Frequent reminders

Political leaders frequently remind Americans that Puerto Ricans are fellow citizens. The fact they have to do this is another sign the rest of the country lacks interest in the island’s plights.

Hillary Clinton did this on Sunday with a tweet critical of Trump that was retweeted more than 300,000 times.
Puerto Rican governor, Ricardo Roselló, has brought the Americanness of Puerto Ricans again and again during his interviews about María on cable news.

“Puerto Rico, which is part of the United States, can turn into a humanitarian crisis,” he said on Monday. “To avoid that, recognize that we Puerto Ricans are American citizens. When we speak of a catastrophe, everyone must be treated equally.”

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