The natural disaster that befell Puerto Rico was bad enough. Hurricane Maria laid waste to the island last fall, knocking out its power grid, leveling homes and leaving a path of destruction in its wake and an official death toll of 64.
Then came the man-made disaster. The federal government’s botched recovery effort, well-documented in news reports, left its own damage. Months of no electricity, no drinkable water, little food, blocked roads, damaged ports and barely functioning hospitals not only prolonged the suffering of Puerto Ricans, it elevated the death toll. A new Harvard study estimates more than 4,600 hurricane-related deaths. At least a third, researchers said, were due to lack of medical treatment.
The U.S. government’s lack of preparation, urgency and efficiency in dealing with the catastrophe that struck this American territory will stand as a shameful dereliction of duty toward inhabitants whose American citizenship is their birthright, just as much as any mainlander.
Natural disasters such as Hurricane Maria are cataclysmic events, and require intensive advance planning and tight coordination to lessen injury and loss of life and to help rebuild. Those qualities were in little evidence when a still-new Trump administration confronted its first real disaster.
A full five months after the hurricane, one-third of the island’s hospitals still had no electricity. Food continued to be scarce. Deliveries of desperately needed supplies were held up over technical shipping disputes. Even now, eight months later, and as another hurricane season draws near, there are still thousands without electricity.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has said it did all it could, and it blames not only the storm but the Puerto Rican government for its inability to do more. That’s typical of an administration that has made a point of not taking responsibility for its own shortcomings. Financially unstable, with high poverty and aging infrastructure, Puerto Rico was not equipped to take the helm on recovery efforts.
Residents had a right to expect that they would receive the same level of assistance and concern as states such as Texas and Louisiana when they were hit by hurricanes earlier in the season. Instead, there is evidence that the administration responded far more aggressively to Houston after Hurricane Harvey hit — even after that city was stabilized — than it did to Puerto Rico, where the damage was far greater.
Signs of incompetence were everywhere. A New York Times investigation in February found that FEMA contracted with an inexperienced small-business owner in Atlanta to deliver a whopping 30 million meals to Puerto Rico. By the time half the order was due, only 50,000 had been shipped. Horrified FEMA officials terminated the contract. And an Associated Press investigation found that emergency tarps and plastic sheeting in a $30 million contract were never delivered. To restore power grids, FEMA hired a company with no related experience.
Puerto Rico would have faced a daunting recovery under the very best of circumstances. No one may ever know exactly how many lives were lost or ruined because the U.S. failed to do its best. But this nation is obliged to swiftly complete Puerto Rico’s recovery, and to fearlessly examine what went wrong and better prepare for the next disaster.