Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail: The Perils of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

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Written by Anastasia Kyriacou

The ongoing rise in deaths in the aftermath of the deadly storm exposes the devastating consequences of inadequate planning for natural disasters and how miscommunication impedes relief efforts. 

The long-awaited independent investigation into Hurricane Maria last week revealed a shocking revised death toll of Puerto Ricans to be now almost 50 times the previous estimate, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history.

In September 2017, the most powerful storm to hit the region in 100 years was reported at the time to have killed 64 people. Six months following the disaster, a definitive study by George Washington University (GWU) established how deaths continued to rise to 2,975 people.

Why weren’t the numbers accurate?

Puerto Rico was an island already encumbered with broken infrastructure and bankruptcy of $120 billion before Hurricane Maria destroyed 80% of crops and afflicted an estimated $90 billion in damage. Hitting 3.4 million people, the storm caused the largest blackout in U.S. history with recurring power cuts ever since.

The poorest and most vulnerable Puerto Ricans faced the highest rates of mortality, with 45% more likely to have been killed in the aftermath of the hurricane as a result of a lack of access to electricity, clean water and poor healthcare. The intermittent power cuts meant vital medical equipment could not be used, whilst diseases spread because sanitation systems went offline and suicide rates spiked five months later as people struggled to cope with the recovery.

Inaccurate death counts were largely a result of doctors not using the appropriate Centres for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines to accurately count the number of deaths. These would have allowed for classification of deaths attributable in the aftermath of the storm as well as direct fatalities.

GWU’s findings also bring to light the shocking lack of emergency response and disaster-communications preparations in place. Through interviewing Puerto Rico government agencies, the report deduced their failure to write or implement crisis and emergency risk communication plans at the time of the hurricane.

The report states there were, “ineffective communication contingency plans in place, resulting in limited public health and safety information reaching local communities post-hurricane and alternative communication channels.” Consequently, such miscommunication led to an ineffective response as it became difficult to know what the real needs of communities were.

The Department of Health’s Office of Emergency Preparedness Response had an outdated plan, which led leaders to inadequately prepare communities for catastrophic disaster. This meant the island was prepared for category 1 hurricanes, with Maria being category 5.

Multi-level government failings

President Donald Trump responded so poorly to Hurricane Maria that Puerto Ricans have accused him of treating them as second-class citizens.

The island was due the same emergency response as any other part of the United States, but the response from the federal government to people in need, was nothing short of lacklustre, with notable imbalances in support compared to other hurricane aid efforts in Texas and Florida.

Slow federal response and insufficient aid

America’s Federal Emergency Management agency, FEMA significantly underestimated the potential damage from Hurricane Maria and relied too heavily on local officials and private-sector bodies. Puerto Rico had no chance of managing the catastrophe on their own due to severely limited capacity, and yet Trump placed blame on San Juan’s leadership to evade his own government’s accountability.

The American government sent just 10,000 relief workers to Puerto Rico in comparison to 30,000 sent to Houston after Hurricane Harvey, and deployed 73 helicopters to Texas within six days, as opposed to 70 to the island after three weeks. Considering it took President Trump a week to respond to Puerto Rico, these figures may be unsurprising.

Recovery and reconstruction was grossly hindered by the Trump administration’s obstinacy in releasing enough financial support. The island was forced to engage in continuous fights with the federal government for sufficient disaster recovery loans; an uphill battle in the face of the Trump administration who said Puerto Rico was too rich for aid money and must pay back any it receives. In a letter, FEMA wrote: “Despite being unable to carry out many vital functions, Puerto Rico is deemed by these federal agencies as not poor enough to qualify for emergency loans.”

Moving forward

GWU’s report concludes with key recommendations including the fundamental need for preparedness with planning, transparency to strengthen informed decision-making and compassion towards the individual and community enduring crisis.

Regardless of the American government’s failings, responding to GWU’s report, President Trump ignominiously defended his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria, brazenly claiming “they did a fantastic job”. But what can you expect from a President who threw paper towels at the victims?

Regardless of how unprecedented the scale of a disaster may be; adequate preparation can prevent a bad situation from worsening. But in all of this, when humanitarian aid and resources are not easily available from the top-down in the aftermath of a disaster, countering responses of negligence and trivialisation with compassion is imperative to stimulate recovery from the bottom-up.

About the author: Anastasia Kyriacou works for AidEx, the world leading platform for international humanitarian aid and development. She explores current and controversial issues with the aim of instigating crucial dialogue among the community within the sector and beyond. 

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