Responding to Puerto Rico’s disaster is uniquely complex. But Trump is still falling short.
A week on from Hurricane Maria’s landfall, Puerto Rico remains objectively devastated. Amid growing criticism, President Trump and acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke have forcefully defended the administration’s response, arguing the crisis conditions reflect unique challenges in Puerto Rico. Duke on Thursday proclaimed herself “very satisfied” with the response so far, calling it “a good news story.”
And yet nearly all of the island remains without power, almost half the population lacks safe drinking water, hospitals are struggling to keep the lights on and fuel shortages are making it hard to deliver aid to those who need it.
Is this the Trump administration’s “Brownie” moment? Or is the White House just getting a bad rap?
As the head of foreign disaster assistance during the Obama administration, I managed the responses to numerous large-scale disasters. It is true that the White House is facing legitimate hurdles, but its response could have been far better managed. Here are three factors important in assessing the quality of the response so far:
1. Disaster response logistics are always difficult — and are even more challenging on islands.
When a major disaster strikes an island, the response is slower than on the mainland. That was true in the early response to the Haiti earthquake, and the early response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. We’re seeing that again in Puerto Rico.
That’s because it’s easier to prepare for disaster when people have somewhere to go. With good early warning, people can leave en masse, as happened in Florida before Hurricane Irma hit Sept. 4. If the disaster damages public services badly, people on the mainland can more easily go where services remain available. And it’s easier to deliver aid when you can choose from a variety of land transportation routes.
None of that is true for a small island. You simply can’t evacuate several million people before the storm hits; afterward, those people can’t spontaneously leave for better-served areas. Damaged seaports and airports become huge logistical bottlenecks. Aid that could be delivered in hours to an inland disaster zone must wait for days while vital transport infrastructure is repaired.
2. Managing several disasters at once is really, really hard.
Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico just after the United States had been hit with two of the most damaging storms in decades. Hurricane Harvey deluged Houston with historic levels of rain; Irma left Florida reeling just a few days later. Each of these storms prompted massive, concurrent deployments of disaster responders from FEMA, search-and-rescue teams from across the country, and a bevy of federal support personnel.