Hurricane response continues to cause political storm in DC

by | May 2, 2018 | Federal Government, Headlines | Comments

Seven months after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, the archipelago continues to struggle with the damages from the tropical storm and devastation of its electrical grid. According to the Rhodium group as of April 12, “more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans are still without power.” Furthermore, the Rhodium group has called this the second largest blackout in the world with 3.4 billion hours of electricity lost since Hurricane Maria reached the territory.

In fact, within the past week, Puerto Rico has had two power outages the most recent of which left the entire territory without power.  This comes in the wake of fierce criticism of the differences in relief response disseminated for Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria. The investigation executed by POLITICO reviewed the FEMA Hurricane response plan to Maria and found that there were discrepancies between the actions taken to address the damages in Texas and Puerto Rico.

The major outcome of the POLITICO investigation noted that the Trump administration, Trump himself and FEMA responded to Hurricane Harvey, which impacted Texas and Florida quicker, and “more aggressively” than to Hurricane Maria. Within days FEMA had deployed helicopters to Texas, whereas it took weeks to reach Puerto Rico. The documents reveal that there was a double standard in relief response time but also, in the number of aid materials being deployed to the US territory.

According to the Associated Press, FEMA is being held responsible by the US Senate Committee on Oversight, for awarding contracts to various organizations that have not delivered supplies to the archipelago such as Bronze Star LLC. Bronze Star LLC was responsible for delivering 500,000 tarps and 60,000 rolls of plastic to the islands. Not only were the supplies not delivered, but the agency Bronze Star LLC, “was formed less than two weeks before it was contracted by FEMA.” Interestingly enough, Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority faced similar accusations by FEMA during the initial aid response because of its contract with Whitefish Energy Holdings (only 2 employees were working at the time of contract) to repair the electrical grid. The contract with Whitefish Energy Holdings was later cancelled due to public outrage.

It is evident by the response time and relief efforts that there exists a double standard between the aid deployed to Texas in comparison to Puerto Rico and other US territories impacted by the Hurricane Maria. POLITICO describes in their investigation that the discrepancy can be partly attributed to FEMA underestimating the aftermath that Hurricane Maria would leave behind. FEMA’s action plan for Puerto Rico’s relief recovery did not anticipate the strength of the storm nor level of destruction and placed the onus of the majority of relief efforts on the territories’ local agencies. Another aspect that was not addressed in the disaster recovery action plan was the financial insecurity of the islands. Although, these are vital issues to consider while planning relief deployment FEMA officials are mandated to decide if the companies contracted for aid relief can deliver the necessary supplies.

In addition to the unequal response to Harvey and Maria by FEMA another facet of the double standard was the disparity in the attention President Trump afforded to the two crises. POLITICO mentions how Trump paid more attention to the relief efforts in Texas versus Puerto Rico an example is the number of times he tweeted about it. He tweeted 24 times about Harvey and only 8 times about Maria, and he visited Texas earlier within the first week and it took him almost twice as long to make it to Puerto Rico. Management and leadership could have influenced the relief times and effort that was shown during the crises. Jeremy Kondyk, former top USAID Disaster Response official, asserts, “[if] you look at his public messaging on a comparable timeline around Puerto Rico, there’s virtually nothing. … That sends a signal to the whole federal bureaucracy about how they should prioritize.”

Although, the hurricane season in 2017 was unprecedented the double standard treatment by FEMA is in line with the way the US territory has been treated. Undoubtedly, there was a combination of factors that created an “almost perfect storm,” which influenced the relief response in the archipelago. However, many officials are aware of this and have not kept quiet about it. Carmen Yulin Cruz, mayor of San Juan, has severely criticized Trump from the beginning of the relief response for being inefficient and not addressing the needs of Puerto Rico in a timely fashion.  

Since Hurricane Maria hit many of the islands citizens’ have fled the island to find safety to the mainland US, where almost 5.6 million Puerto Ricans already call home. Governor Rosselló of Puerto Rico has started to visit states where Senate and House seats are up for re-election and has begun registering people to vote since early January of this year. Governor Rosselló mounted this initiative by visiting districts in Florida, to try and influence their electoral votes for midterm elections.  Essentially, Rosselló intends to continue the chain reaction that was initiated when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and show that the territory is part of the US; he strives to use the political clout he is creating to hopefully, influence elections in 2020. Additionally, the governor believes that this course of action can be used to help Puerto Rico gain statehood eventually, ending the unequal double standard treatment of the islands.