Political war between FEMA and local leaders in Puerto Rico hampering recovery efforts

by | Oct 17, 2017 | Federal Government, Puerto Rico | Comments

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator William “Brock” Long, said on Monday October 9, at FEMA headquarters in Washington that, the federal response to Hurricane Maria has been hampered by Puerto Rico’s political culture and a lack of unity among leaders on the island. He added, in the continental United States, “politics between Republicans and Democrats is bad enough, but in Puerto Rico, politics is even worse in many cases.”

He gave these comments after a long session in which he was defending the federal response by the Trump administration to the hurricane’s devastation. He emphasized on being apolitical, but he himself is a political appointee of the President Trump. Moreover, the federal response to Hurricane Maria has been a subject to abundant criticism.

Significantly, San Juan’s mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz (PDP), has expressed rage at the failure of the administration in delivering life-sustaining supplies. She accused FEMA of doing nothing when hospitals were in crisis, on her Twitter account. While in response President Trump (R) attacked her by tweeting that she has shown pitiable leadership, he also criticized Puerto Rico’s poor infrastructure for much of the humanitarian crisis since the storm hit. On Sunday October 8 while speaking to ABC’s “This Week” Long said, the political divide in Puerto Rico is worse than it is in the mainland United States.

“What I’ve experienced firsthand is, a successful response relies on unity, to give you an example, when you can’t get elected officials at the local level to come to a joint field office because they disagree with the politics of the governor that’s there, it makes things difficult and the information fragmented.”

People from Puerto Rico reported that after the storm hit the islands there was almost none or very little sign of the government, specifically in remote rural and mountainous areas people found themselves isolated. The current recovery and rescue effort has been hindered by bureaucracy and frustration. People are filling out paperwork in English and have no assurance from the government workers that anything they have requested will be provided. For example, according to the mayor, in the city of Yabucoa, FEMA officials collected calculations of necessities and have been working with him, but none of the necessary supplies have been provided.

In the FEMA briefing of October 9 Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, commanding general of the US Army Corps of Engineers, describes the ongoing crises and offered new strategies to overcome the disastrous situation, he provided a brief description of the critical issue of electricity. Only 14 percent of the grid is up and running, while the islands need 2,700 MW of electricity to operate and only 376 MW are available. In response to questions about why recovery efforts have taken so long in Puerto Rico, Brig. Gen. Jose Reyes, assistant adjutant general of the Puerto Rican National Guard, blamed the double-whammy of hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Reyes said in an interview, “You have to understand, this is a situation never seen before, we were hit by two hurricanes, Cat 5, within less than 10 days. We were not even getting back on our feet after Irma, then suddenly we got hit by Maria. When you go to Texas, or you go to Florida, help will come through the roads. And it may hit a portion of Texas, but not the whole state.”

On October 9, at FEMA headquarters in Washington, Long said that“We’re not designed to be first responders,”. “We’re designed to support response and recovery operations.” He further explained that the problem in Puerto Rico is of weakened capacity, “A large portion of local workers as well as state workers were disaster victims. We had to play a greater first responder role than typically we would on the continental United States. We’re not really designed to do that in many cases, speaking honestly.”