The Failure of Imagination in Thinking about Disasters

People waited in line for drinking water outside a police station in Juncos, P.R., four days after Hurricane Maria made landfall.Credit Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Cardiff     FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, has released an after-action report on its performance in Puerto Rico, and it met the disaster with a disastrously bad response.  Responding to Hurricane Irma’s devastation of the Virgin Islands, they had emptied out their warehouse in Puerto Rico of almost all supplies as they tried to respond.  Then only weeks later Hurricane Maria slammed the island of Puerto Rico.  The FEMA report essentially stated that in making contingency plans they prepared for the “occurrence of a single incident, rather than concurrent incidents.”

The Washington Post in their story on the report called this a “failure of imagination” writing,

The hypothetical hurricane FEMA planners had anticipated and prepared for in recent years was far less destructive than the one that arrived on Sept. 20. FEMA envisioned a storm knocking out power to 73 percent of the population, the report states. Maria destroyed the entire grid — much of it for months. The hypothetical storm would require search and rescue resources across 75 percent of the island. Maria required search and rescue for 99 percent.  The plan imagined that 56 percent of hospitals would be affected. The reality was 92 percent.

I’m in regular and often daily contact now with our star volunteer engineer and my companero in Puerto Rico, Willie Cosme, a host of “Salsa from A to Z” for 26 years and now a regular staple of all of our programming, but that’s a relatively new thing.  For six months we were lucky to be able to even get a text to him.  His electricity and internet still go out on a regular basis.  A backhoe blackened the island not long ago.  This is a long running disaster whose body count is still unknown.

My point today is not just that Puerto Rico got slammed twice, once by Maria and then by the ineffectiveness of the US government and its people from the White House on down.  That’s common knowledge.  My real concern is that we are continuing to have a “failure of imagination” when confronting disasters, both natural and political.

A screaming baby with a cellphone might be funny for a minute, but it minimizes the danger and destruction of Hurricane Donald even as it slanders all babies.  President Trump has curated his own worldwide “summer of rage” as he travels from one country to another, it is clear that we all still suffer from a failure to imagine the damage he brings and how bad it might still become with “concurrent incidents.”  After blowing up the G-7 meeting in Quebec, he flipped off NATO allies in Brussels threatening the whole European alliance, undercut the British Prime Minister, outran the Queen, and has brought us into a tariff and trade war that his Treasury Secretary has conceded he doesn’t know how to stop.  None of this counts the domestic devastation he has brought to civil and human rights, labor, women, the environment, health, education, social services, the courts and the rest of the endless acres of scorched earth he has rendered on American soil.

No one thought it could ever be this bad.  This was our failure of imagination.  It is every bit as bad as our worst nightmare, and there is no timetable on when we might be able to wake up from this horror and live normal lives again, much like the situation for all of the residents of Puerto Rico.  We need an after-action report for America that is as frank as what FEMA has detailed on their mishandling of Puerto Rico, and then, rather than just an “I’m sorry,” we need a total cure.


Silver Lining in the Rain Clouds: Talk Gets Cheap When Action Matters

New Orleans   Yes, friends and neighbors, it really does often depend on whose ox is getting gored. Another case in point and providing abundant proof lies in the water brought by Harvey.

Harvey was an equal opportunity disaster compared to Katrina. Rich and poor neighborhoods in Houston, whether Belaire or half-million dollar suburbs, went under as did the 5th Ward. Republicans and Democratic voters were swimming for their lives.

All of the talk and lip-flapping after Katrina that slowed funds as conservatives and Republicans yammered about corruption and how the recovery money would be spent, can’t be heard. Much of the same accompanied Sandy when it hit the New York /New Jersey area when Texas Senators and other wingers wanted to claim the recovery package was larded with pork, referring to money that was earmarked for repair of infrastructure and prevention for the future.

Republican leaders are already preparing a $6 billion package of immediate relief for Texas-Louisiana disaster areas as a first order of business when they return to session in September. After Katrina, we were marching on Congress in December more than three months after the storm for a $4 billion package, and they were fighting us. The lessons from other countries, Japan for example, facing similar disasters, is that you have to move money immediately. I’m not bitter, but that doesn’t mean I don’t remember.

Does it go without saying that New Orleans and New York City were Democratic strongholds, while southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana are seen as Republican redoubts, regardless of how blue the city of Houston itself votes? Maybe, but let’s just say it anyway.

President Trump is all over this as well, like white on rice. He’s already been to Corpus Christi and Austin, and is heading to the Lake Charles, Louisiana area. VP Pence was hanging around the Beaumont area throwing fallen branches on a pile. He wants to see if he can pretend to be able to manage something in this disaster, since he can’t seem to handle the disaster he has made of his original swampland target in Washington.

With proof positive of the need for a robust government response, we are now saved from any of his cavalier and foolhardy talk about shutting down the government. The proposed whack at the FEMA budget is being rewritten as an increase instead. The only wall that is likely to get funded now is a seawall. There’s even speculation that Trump may have to back off of DACA and the Dreamers because so many live in Texas. He may even have to clinch his teeth on his immigration hateration and drum beating, since recovery efforts depend so vitally on immigrant labor, papered or not, to fill gaps in overwhelming cleanup and construction needs.

Who says there isn’t a small thread of silver lining in this horrid devastation of rain clouds?