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.


Puerto Rico: “Like Living in a War Zone”

Telsa Power restores power at a children’s hospital

Greenville  Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico more than one-month ago. Few have missed the reports of devastation on the island and the continuing deprivation of its people. The majority of the island still lacks access to clean water and electricity.

We have a many connections to the pain and problems of the island. Willie Cosme introduced Spanish language programming to the Arkansas radio market more than 28 years ago on our 100,000 watt noncommercial station, KABF-FM, and has done a show continually since that time, specializing in salsa. He did a stint as station manager before throwing up his hands, and was always a fixture around the studio, specializing as a problem solver of issues large and small. By the time I was drafted in as station manager four years ago, Willie had retired from state employment. I even recruited him for a bit with Local 100 as a navigator in the early days of the Affordable Care Act. A bit more than a year ago, Willie relocated to Puerto Rico, his native island. His mother was up in age. His sister was still there. His daughters were grown in the Arkansas and Missouri. He was needed at home.

Willie was working with me to program the stations we support in New Orleans, Little Rock, and Greenville. Modern communication and the internet are amazing things. We were within days of putting the ACORN International internet station on the air at when the hurricane hit Puerto Rico, and the world went upside down on Willie. We stalked him on Facebook until one of our searchers found a picture of him on his daughter’s page. I got my first text from him only days ago when he had driven to a higher piece of ground miles away from his home for a brief signal. Asking him what it was like, he could only reply that it was “like living in a war zone.” He and his family are getting water by collecting it from rain barrels he has set up. There is no power. He lives a mile or so outside of Corozal which is less than 30 miles from San Juan. Lines for gas are endless, when they can find it. He says there are now traffic jams in front of his house, because it takes so much time to get to town and the condition of the roads has changed so dramatically. There are some restaurants open finally so often they buy food there, because it is safer, even though more expensive. When will it be better, I asked? He answered, “it could be months.”

People at the radio station and around ACORN land who know Willie are trying to put together support for him and his family. Little things like solar lamps and so forth. Mail is getting to him he says, but other deliveries, like Amazon are hesitating to guarantee delivery. He’s stuck. He says he’s lucky, so if this is good luck, think for a minute about the rest of the island and the situation of its people. [Send donations for Puerto Rico and Willie to KABF 2101 South Main Little Rock 72206]

President Trump rates the government’s performance a “10.” He must mean 10 out of 100, I guess. We had friends with us from Hawaii recently for several days. They told us that everyone on the islands was watching the Puerto Rico closely, because they were wondering what would happen to their island state if, and when, they are hit by a monsoon and tsunami.

Think about it. Puerto Rico is the Katrina we can’t see because it’s not close at hand. We have to do better, both now and in the future.