The effects of Hurricane Maria on the US territory of Puerto Rico were lots of damage, political unrest, homelessness and loss of life. According to multiple sources the loss of human life, the widespread property damage and sociological damage were beyond anything the island territory could handle all on its own. There were many stories of suffering, loss of life, political corruptions, demonstrations and blame in regards to this hurricane. Although the territory is semi-independent, the federal government was also blamed heavily for not treating the island fairly, specifically accused of not sending help quickly enough as they would have to mainland states like Florida or Texas. Although hurricane Maria was a disaster, this essay explores how it affected the region of Puerto Rico and what lessons were learned after this catastrophe.
For months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the official death count remained at 64 lives lost to the storm. That changed this week when Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rossello substantially raised the official estimate to nearly 3,000 deaths related to the hurricane, following the release of a commissioned, independent study from George Washington University.
The official death count was actually one of the most disputed and politically driven aspects of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on the island of Puerto Rico, which at the time had 1.57 million residents. Federal officials of the Trump administration clashed with the local government and the press. Given the visible damage as illustrated below by the photographic evidence from Chron.com, it was very hard to believe the official count of 64 lives lost on the island with densely populated areas as well as hard to reach rural areas:
The secondary complaint about the recovery effort was that the Federal government was slow to act in response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico compared to other efforts in places like Texas and Florida. Puerto Rican authorities have requested $94 billion to cover damages from Hurricane Maria. Congress approved $5 billion in the fall of 2017 as part of an overall federal aid package of more than $36 billion allotted for hurricanes Maria, Harvey and Irma. According to the website of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as of November 2, 2021, the Puerto Rico rebuilding effort included $25.5 billion total obligated for public assistance, $93.8 million obligated for the “Hazard Mitigation Program”, $20 billion awarded for the “HUD Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Program”, $9.5 billion obligated for “Power Reconstruction and Public Works,” and $1.5 billion approved for FEMA “Individual Assistance.”
The commodities that were mobilized for the recovery effort were also of a very large volume. FEMA gave a total of 6.2 million litres of water, 5.8 million meals, 185 generators, 19,000 generators, 109,000 tarps and 29,000 pieces of plastic sheeting. The mobilization efforts took a long time in part to the challenge of moving so many materials to the island.
These numbers seem staggeringly low considering that the island lost over 80% of its power and the casualties piled up very quickly. It seems like a very small amount of generators for a very large population center.
The greatest challenge in disaster recovery after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was the lack of cooperation between various government agencies and entities. It seemed like the office of the governor was in great conflict with both the federal government as well as the Mayor of San Juan, the capital and most populous city. There were widespread reports and rumours of corruption and the accusations of such behaviour were flying wildly in the press, specifically around the mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who was a political opponent to the governor.
The federal indictment says the former officials illegally directed federal funding to politically connected contractors. The arrests come about a month after Congress approved a controversial disaster aid bill that earmarked additional funding for Puerto Rico’s recover from Hurricane Maria in 2017. Six people were charged in the 32-count indictment. They include Julia Keleher, who served as Puerto Rico’s education secretary until April, and Angela Avila-Marrero, who was the executive director of the Puerto Rico Health Insurance Administration until late June.
The governor of Puerto Rico at the time of Hurricane Maria was Governor Ricardo Rossello. His government as well as his person was accused of great amounts of corruption and lack of empathy. His treatment of the Puerto Rican people included austerity measures in the aftermath as well as using police and military forces to quell civil unrest. His mismanagement of the island’s recovery resulted in hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets in protest of his administration, demanding his resignation. There were multiple communications that were recovered.
But he couldn’t outrun the collapse in support following revelation earlier this month of app messages in which he and 11 friends and associates –all male- mocked several women, an obese man Rosello had posed for a photo with, a gay pop star, and poor individuals. They also joked about killing political opponents, including San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto (CAS’84), who has announced she’ll run for governor next year. Facing possible impeachment hearings, Rossello resigned Wednesday, his departure to become effective August 2. Secretary of Justice Wanda Vazquez will succeed him.
There were a number of agencies that were also involved in the recovery effort after Hurricane Maria. These included the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Puerto Rico Electric and Power Authority, the Red Cross, the US National Guard Bureau, the US Coast Guard, the US Northern Command (NORTHCOM), the US Air Force, the Federal Aviation Administration, the US Transportation Command, the US Department of Energy, the General Services Administration, the US Department of Homeland Security, the US Customs and Border Protection, the US Postal Service, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the US Social Security Administration.
Hurricane Maria - a Learned Experience
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were five major lessons learned from Hurricane Maria in regards to communications. They were as follows:
- Develop Key Messages in Advance: many key messages can be put together before the disaster and sent out in what is called the “phased approach” especially a key message document which helped immensely in Puerto Rico.
- Identify New Communication Channels: many primary means of communication fail quickly and fully during natural disasters. Agencies must be ready to improvise, adapt and overcome these challenges such as the use of FEMA’s text messaging capabilities to disseminate information.
- Create Culturally Appropriate Materials: many messages by the CDC were translated into Spanish to be understood by the local citizenry. Their team used “widely understood terminology in the island to provide clear and localized language, particularly for audiences with low literacy.”
- Partner Up: the CDC partnered up extensively with the Puerto Rico Health Department and military partners to deliver materials and communications to the affected areas.
- Boots on the Ground: the CDC attended more than 30 events with local and outside partners to disseminate information to the public. This included fact sheets, posters, palm cards, and children’s coloring books.
Overall, the devastation and damage that was caused to Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria was immense. The disaster recovery effort was slow, cumbersome and politically charged in many ways. However, there were an immense amount of resources brought to bear across many organizations, although in the opinion of many, far too slowly. Public, private and non-profit organizations all came out to help the people of Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, there remains much to be done still, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. There are still infrastructure issues such as power generation and transmission as well as roads and bridges left to repair. The overall death count is still disputed widely as well. There are also issues of mass homelessness including many people that relocated to the mainland US and especially Florida who are still suffering from displacement. This recovery effort was far from exemplary yet there were many lessons learned and many lives saved nonetheless.
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