FEMA Admits U.S. Wasn’t Prepared for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico

Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released an official report admitting to being ill-prepared to handle Hurricane Maria’s devastating impact on Puerto Rico. 

The report reveals that FEMA-funded emergency-supply warehouses were emptied from prior hurricanes and never restocked; FEMA staff were under-qualified to handle emergency management for an entire island; and FEMA’s satellite-operated cell phones did not function because they were not wired to operate in the Caribbean.

Overall, emergency management in Puerto Rico was a logistical nightmare. FEMA’s slow response time to assist Puerto Rico, coupled with poorly managed communications among federal agencies, exacerbated Hurricane Maria’s destruction. The death count is up to 4,645. While there was not any malintent against Puerto Rico, FEMA’s lack of preparation is a testament to the U.S.’s colonial relationship to its territories.

The U.S. claims Puerto Rico as a commonwealth, and therefore, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens (though they are ineligible to vote for President!) The governance structure between the local Puerto Rican government and the U.S. Federal government is a messy relationship, making Puerto Rico dependent on the U.S. for disaster relief aid, among many other federal resources.

While this report admits FEMA’s problems, which is a significant step toward effective recovery for the island, it doesn’t address why the problems even existed and how to fix them. Bennie Thompson, Representative from Mississippi and member of the Committee on Homeland Security, is concerned how FEMA will move forward: “This report still does not explain how or why Puerto Rico was clearly treated differently than the states that faced natural disasters last year,” Thompson said in an interview with NPR. Compared to response time and rehabilitation efforts in Texas and Florida, Puerto Rico’s path to recovery has been slow.

Meanwhile, in early July, Tropical Storm Beryl swept through Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, causing approximately 21,000 power outages, of which 1,500 are homes that have remained without electricity since Hurricane Maria. Blue tarps still cover roofs, not all municipalities have potable drinking water, sewage systems cause flooding during rain storms — these are just a couple of the infrastructure problems Puerto Rico still faces.

Hurricane season will continue through November. It will start up again in another year. And the aftermath of Maria and the colonial legacy between the U.S. and Puerto Rico will have long-term effects on recovery.

I’m here in Puerto Rico through August, researching and analyzing housing policy to support organizations and community leaders in understanding the housing crisis landscape. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be reporting for Feministing on a range of issues facing Puerto Ricans today—from intimate partner violence in the aftermath of Maria to abortion access to women-owned businesses—so stay tuned!  

Image header credit: NPR

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