US Response To Maria Highlights Challenges In FEMA Deployment

  • Samuel Siskind
  • Oct 2, 2017 4:43PM

Hurricane Maria was one of the ten most intense Atlantic hurricanes on record. The storm was one of the worst natural disaster in the region in nearly a century. Latest numbers indicate that the storm claimed the lives of over 60 people, including 30 in Dominica, 5 in the Dominican Republic, 2 in Guadeloupe, 3 in Haiti and 16 in Puerto Rico.

Although the storm wreaked devastation to infrastructure across the Antilles, the primary focus of the US was on its territory of Puerto Rico. According to reports, only 11 of 69 hospitals in the territory had power. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said only about 5% of the island's power grid was operational. Less than half the population had potable water, and cell service was out in 95% of the territory.

The slow recovery of the Island’s basic resources and services has been a damning point of critique against a whole slew of culprits, but it’s been hard to identify who exactly is the main villain- if there is one.

There has been a series of logistical challenges to the disaster relief, nearly two weeks since the hurricane first began to lash the region’s islands. There are the relatively minute points that underscore the lack of resources available on the Island in general. This includes the lack of qualified truck drivers in Puerto Rico to disseminate supplies once they arrive. The lack of fuel resources to keep up such a massive effort are also incredibly low. Poor communications infrastructure also has left many small towns isolated.

On the broader level, the makeup of the Island itself has hindered the efforts in carrying out relief operations. The administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Brock Long has correctly pointed out that the topography of Puerto Rico presents a unique challenge to personnel. Additionally, FEMA is structured to work with, not in replacement of, local authorities. The sheer devastation resulting from the storm created a situation in which there were little-to-no local resources to work with. Federal personnel were left to work alone.  

In truth, the US administration has not been as passive and unresponsive as some have portrayed. FEMA was deployed the day after the storm hit Puerto Rico. In an effort to open more channels of supplies reaching the Island, President Trump waived the Jones Act, a provision restricting foreign shipments, so vessels of supplies could reach the population faster. FEMA says it has reached all of Puerto Rico's 78 municipalities and delivered a million meals, along with 2 million liters of water, to 11 distribution centers on the island.

Solutions to the logistical challenges are also starting to emerge. Due to lack of overland supply chains, food and equipment have started to be delivered via helicopter. This has also begun to address the issue of isolated areas in more inland areas far from the population centers on the coast.

It is human nature to attempt to locate a “bad guy” in tragedy. In reality, this perfect storm and its devastating aftermath is the result of a series of unfortunate events and perfectly-horrible conditions that created the current debacle. The men and women of the US disaster relief efforts will continue to find solutions. The questions that remain are only how long will it take and how high the casualty toll will be when they come.