September 2017 brought disaster to the island of Puerto Rico in the form of Hurricane Maria. The storm crippled the territory’s electrical system and left vast numbers of its residents with uninhabitable homes. Six months later, more than five percent of the island remains without electricity and continues to be embroiled in talks with FEMA and other officials within the Trump administration regarding crucial funding for permanent disaster work—of which none has been funded to date.
This is the most recent development in a troublesome odyssey for the island since Maria made landfall, and an extensive report filed by Politico on Tuesday sheds new light on the continued failure of FEMA and the Trump administration to address and respond to the Puerto Rican crisis—especially when compared to their disaster relief efforts in the Houston metropolitan area following Hurricane Harvey.
President Trump has already faced multiple instances of public backlash after his flippant attitude toward the situation in Puerto Rico was on full display during his only trip to the island following the storm. The lasting image of that trip was the president doing his best Steph Curry impression while launching rolls of paper towels into a crowd of survivors like he was attempting to hit a buzzer beater. It only got worse from there, when his attitude turned more antagonistic toward Puerto Rican leadership, most notably San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. Cruz’s criticism of the federal government’s relief efforts on the island were met with swift condemnation by the president, ridiculing Cruz for what he deemed “poor leadership” and stating that Puerto Rican officials “want everything to be done for them.”
Cruz was right to criticize the president’s weak and slow response to the developing crisis, however. According to FEMA records, there was a drastic difference in the response to Hurricane Maria when compared to how the government addressed Hurricane Harvey when it hit Houston less than a month earlier.
Within six days of Harvey’s impact, the U.S. Northern Command deployed 73 helicopters to aid in search-and-rescue efforts. It took three weeks for that number of helicopters to be matched in Puerto Rico. Nine days after Harvey, FEMA had distributed 5.1 million meals, 4.5 million liters of water and 20,000 tarps to effected Houston residents while only 1.6 million meals, 2.8 million liters of water and 5,000 tarps were delivered to Puerto Rico in the same timeframe. In that same nine day window, $141.8 million dollars of individual assistance to victims of Harvey was approved by FEMA while only $6.2 million was approved for Puerto Rican victims. The 30,000 aid personnel deployed to Houston and other effected areas in Texas in that nine day period tripled the amount of personnel in Puerto Rico. It only took FEMA ten days to approve permanent disaster work for Harvey-effected areas, but Puerto Rico had to wait 43 days for similar approval, and that work still hasn’t received approved funding from FEMA.
No matter how the Trump administration wants to spin things, the numbers show a vast disparity in response time and management by the government between the two storms. What’s even worse is that the reported death toll, 64, attributed to Hurricane Maria has been called into question by local officials on the island, as they claim it didn’t take into consideration those who died from illnesses caused or exacerbated by the disastrous effects of the storm. FEMA officials cited the extensive damage to the territory’s airports and ports as why military provisions didn’t arrive sooner, but the main airports and ports were repaired and reopened within days of the storm’s landing. Even Trump’s own visit, where he declared FEMA’s efforts an “A+”, came across as a low-hearted effort to pay lip service to the unfolding disaster. He took one walking tour of one of the least affected neighborhoods on the island 13 days after impact. He visited Houston twice within the first eight days following Harvey.
One heavy point of criticism is the delay in sending Mike Byrne, inarguably the best FEMA official at addressing and leading disaster response efforts, to Puerto Rico. Byrne could easily have been moved from heading the relief effort in Houston, which had “reducedor completely eliminated” the risk to lives in the area, according to a Sept. 14 report from Texas governor Greg Abbott, but instead chose to place Alejandro De La Campa in charge of Puerto Rican relief efforts on Sept. 20. The decision to keep Byrne in place in Houston surprised many with experience in disaster relief.
“When I started hearing things, I was thinking there are a lot of heavy hitters sitting on the bench … I would have put my heavy hitters in there,” said Craig Fugate, the head of FEMA under the Obama administration. De La Campa’s own deputy, Justo Hernandez, stated that “Mike [Byrne] is the best person for the job.”
Byrne eventually would replace De La Campa on Oct. 10, well past the crucial first weeks of the relief effort.
Puerto Rico’s struggle to secure funding, both individually and as a whole, has met multiple obstacles. While more victims of Maria applied for federal aid than victims of Harvey in the first 78 days following each storm, FEMA approved 39 percent of Harvey-related applications as opposed to 28 percent of Maria-related applications. The territory was also forced by the Trump administration to accept a more experimental form of federal aid, referred to as 428, for its rebuilding effort, according to multiple congressional officials and people with direct knowledge of the arrangement. Senior officials within the administration denied those reports. Utilization of this alternative funding procedure had positive impacts when implemented on a post-Hurricane Sandy housing project, but has never been applied to a such a large project. Part of the reason why Puerto Rico was forced to take the offer is the territory’s inability to lobby Congress for relief. The island has one non-voting member of Congress, which has very little hope of competing with states that field multiple legislators in both houses when it comes to securing funding for their constituents.
“Unless you are God, you can’t do the job of six people just yourself and without a vote,” said former Secretary of State of Puerto Rico Kenneth McClintock.
While the experimental formula would allow for much-needed improvements in Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, which was outdated before Maria’s devastation, an overwhelming fear for the cash-strapped island is attached to the plan: the island, not FEMA, must cover any expenses that exceed the estimated budget. It’s a huge risk made even more tenuous by the fact that FEMA wants last say on the budget estimate, refusing to include Puerto Rican leadership on the final decision.
“We’re more than happy to have Puerto Rico engineers and engineering firms be part of this, and they can help us with the estimates … At the end of the day, we’re going to do the estimate,” said Byrne.
While Byrne offered assurance that the estimate will be fair, the lack of input has Puerto Rican leadership on edge and has drawn opposition from other disaster relief officials stateside.
“As a state guy, I would be opposed to that,” said former director of the Florida emergency management agency.
Puerto Rico is in a good place to use the 428 funding following a Congressional exemption to a rule requiring the estimate be equal to the pre-existing infrastructure, but having no input in establishing the financial threshold of its rebuilding effort could see the already heavily indebted island take on a much larger financial burden than that of other effected areas within the U.S.
No matter what way it is viewed, the people of Puerto Rico were shown a disservice by the federal government following Maria. Now, it remains to be seen just how far into the future that disparity in response and concern will stretch.