The Failure of Imagination in Thinking about Disasters

Ideas and Issues
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.