Tag Archives: Hurricane Maria

Puerto Rico Two Years After Hurricane Maria

San Juan         Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico a little over two years ago on September 17, 2017, with more force as a Cat-5 storm than any in the recorded history of the island.  In San Juan, the damage seemed slight and hardly noticeable.  Once on the highways crisscrossing the island to Ponce, the second largest city, and up the coast to Guanica, and later to the smaller island of Culebra, it was harder to ignore.  Major highway toll roads would go from smooth to pocked within miles.  Blue tarps still dotted the neighborhoods with some houses abandoned.

After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans fifteen years ago and, in the aftermath, I wrote a book, published in 2011, The Battle for the Ninth Ward:  ACORN, Rebuilding New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster.  I was curious whether or not we had really learned lessons and how they were implemented.  The news from Puerto Rico had not been encouraging.  On the two-year anniversary, the New York Times had reported,

With Puerto Rico still in the throes of a debt crisis and hurting from a 12-year economic recession, there is no money set aside for a study to identify the estimated 2,975 people who died as a result of the hurricane, [Wanda] Vázquez, Puerto Rico’s governor, told local reporters. Federal funds have yet to come in for a single permanent road reconstruction project, reported El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper. The island municipality of Vieques still does not have a hospital. Up to 30,000 homes remain covered by blue roof tarps that were supposed to be temporary — about half the number of houses under tarps at the time of the one-year anniversary a year ago.

The clearest lesson of Katrina had been that the money had to get on the ground quickly.  The grade on that lesson in Puerto Rico is a big, fat F.

I talked to Willie Cosme frequently after the storm, at least as frequently as was possible, since the entire island was without electricity and internet for many months.  We sat in the back of the Poetry Passage in Old San Juan on Wade’s World to get his reactions.  Willie lived and worked in Arkansas for thirty-seven years and brought Spanish language programming and his great show, Salsa from A to Z, to KABF thirty years ago and continues to be a volunteer engineer for AM/FM remotely from the center of the island.  He said that people were hopeful the recovery money was coming soon, and that it appeared their federal monitor would release it finally.  Puerto Ricans were “resilient,” he said, and population was increasing again after so many had been forced to flee to the United States without recovery.  There were plans to rebuild the electricity grid in regions rather than the one-grid system that had plunged the island into darkness, but some wanted to privatize the system.  No infrastructure money had made it difficult to rebuild roads, hospitals, schools.

People may have been resilient, but they weren’t happy, particularly at the government and the governor.  Two weeks of protests had forced his resignation.  The island’s attorney general, Wanda Vasquez, had been the last one standing.  Willie thought she had done a good job, partially because, not having been elected, she was forced to work with both major parties, not just her own, the Progressives, the traditional statehood party.  Elections are in November 2020, and though Vasquez had said she would not run, the new support and the public’s growing intolerance for corruption and ineffective government, might change her mind.

It seems trivial to say that Puerto Rico’s recovery is a work-in-progress, especially since much of the work has not even begun to progress, but my companero, Willie Cosme, is cautiously optimistic.  Few lessons have been learned, but once again people prove that we all live the words of the old Donna Summers song, and “we will survive.”

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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.

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