From the vantage point of the U.S. mainland, it seems obvious that the disaster response effort in Puerto Rico isn’t going well.
Twelve days after Maria made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane on September 20, that effort seems to be getting worse, not better, and for any bit of good news, there has been a countervailing piece of bad news: Yes, 65 percent of the island’s gas stations were back online by Sunday, but local media outlets reported it was a “weekend of terror,” with thieves targeting the gas stations, taking advantage of the island’s lack of electricity and the fact that police and other emergency responders were stretched thin. And yes, more hospitals were reopening — bringing the total to sixty of the island’s sixty-eight — but of those, only nine had electricity, and reports circulated about emergency rooms closing because they lacked enough diesel; another in the capital evacuated patients because of a failed generator. And, of course, there’s the story that’s been getting the most airtime on the mainland: more than 10,000 cargo containers full of aid sitting in the port of San Juan, unable to be off-loaded and distributed.
Isn’t anyone in charge? Why does the response seem so inadequate?
The answers, says Hannah Coffey, a program manager and emergency planner with Boldplanning Inc., a Nashville, Tennessee–based emergency operations planning firm, are, “Yes, there’s someone in charge” — his name is Brock Long and he’s the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency — and, “It’s complicated.”
“This problem precedes this disaster by a long stretch,” Coffey explains, and is only compounded by the fact that, as a commonwealth of the United States, Puerto Rico simply isn’t entitled to the same sorts of emergency planning and response resources that are available to the fifty states. No matter what Puerto Rico and its individual citizens might have done to prepare for an unprecedented hurricane, its government and emergency planners could never access the planning and disaster resources available to states because they’re not allowed to.
“People are seeing the here, the now, and the emergent,” says Coffey, “but they’re not seeing what led up to it.”
It’s not FEMA’s or Long’s inadequacies at play here, says Coffey, who knows Long personally and describes him as “an astoundingly honest and straightforward man who brings a private-sector sharpness that often doesn’t play well in the media.” In fact, she praises Long for pushing through approval of a declaration of emergency for the region on September 18, two days before the hurricane made landfall.
Instead, it’s U.S. policy that treats American citizens in its commonwealths and territories as second-class — literally. Because Puerto Rico is not a state, Coffey explains, the island doesn’t qualify for crucial FEMA grants — HMGPs and EMPGs and PDMs — that are central to disaster planning, management, and recovery. This money is what allows state governments to do pre-staging, putting conditions in place to make sure response and recovery go smoothly. Without such funds, pre-staging is extremely limited, if not impossible.
Nor does Puerto Rico qualify for interstate resource sharing schema that are common on the mainland. “When something happens in Arkansas, Texas has mobile units ready to go and it’s an even Stephen exchange,” explains Coffey, thanks to existing memorandums of understanding (MOU) among the states. “At some point, they will get paid back in some perverse federal bartering system. That doesn’t exist when you’re on an island. There aren’t MOUs. You’re left to beg, borrow, or steal.”
In the absence of interstate agreements, commonwealths like Puerto Rico (or territories like Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands) are left to cobble together an emergency version of standard operating procedure. On an island already beset by a lack of resources — Puerto Rico was already staggering under more than $70 billion in debt and failing infrastructure — it becomes virtually impossible to set up emergency scaffolding.
Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status is a legacy of its colonial history, dating back to a 1901 Supreme Court ruling that, unlike Hawaii, which the United States had acquired at the same time three years earlier, Puerto Rico and Guam were unincorporated territories without full constitutional protections. “In short, Hawaii and previously acquired territories were considered proto-states, while Puerto Rico and other new territories were colonies,” says Doug Mack, author of The Not-Quite States of America. That 1901 ruling “is full of explicitly racist language about ‘foreign aliens,’ ” he adds, “and it still stands today.”
The resulting conditions are bizarrely inconsistent. Puerto Ricans are citizens but they can’t vote for president. They can serve in the military, yet they have no real representation in Washington. There’s a seemingly endless number of similar contradictions that are not easily conveyed to mainland Americans, many of whom aren’t even aware of the nature of Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States.
“They’re not a state [so] they’re not real [to many mainlanders],” Coffey says. The recent sudden saturation of American news with reports from Puerto Rico was preceded by a near-total absence of reporting about the island, much less from it. And the lack of understanding about Puerto Rico’s status as a territory makes what’s already an incredibly difficult hurricane response effort look even more chaotic.
In an ideal situation, what should have happened in Puerto Rico in advance of the hurricane? Coffey, who is also part of the disaster response NGO Team Rubicon, and who has worked in emergency planning and disaster response and recovery in national and international contexts, has plenty of ideas.
First, says Coffey, drop pads should have been set up. These are sites where supplies can be air-dropped in and have a reasonable chance of landing safely. Then, there have to be centralized points of distribution of those supplies — not just one site, but multiple locations spread out, where people can access them. There are also preparatory steps that could have been taken, like installing desalination systems; it’s a cruel irony to be running out of water when you’re surrounded by it.
Ultimately, the problem isn’t scrambling for aid, or finding officials and civilians to distribute it. Plenty of corporations and private individuals have donated aid, and hundreds of trained rescue workers are eager to help. The problem is red tape.
“Without pre-staging areas, grant funds, and receiving ports, we’re left with a dead zone within which to drop stuff off,” Coffey explains. “We can’t just drop it off anywhere. There are ways to drop it off but they’re not federal. They’re private.” Emergency response volunteers, such as those who are part of Team Rubicon, are limited by hourly caps and liability waivers that won’t allow them to go beyond a certain point.
“Brock has been very proactive about pushing those boundaries,” Coffey adds, “but he’s hamstrung by the administration that employs him. He’s always walking the razor’s edge.”
The bureaucracy that already characterized Puerto Rico’s relationship with the federal government thanks to its commonwealth status was only compounded post 9-11. “Some of this goes back to the Patriot Act,” Coffey explains. “You’re not allowed to intervene in these disaster zones unless you have special clearance.” When FEMA was subsumed by the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, that absorption created a byzantine system that is slow and complex when it needs to be nimble and streamlined. “We ended up with two layers of bureaucracy [that] made it much more difficult for people to work through,” she says.
What fundamentally needs to happen post-Maria, Coffey says, is for the United States to start treating Puerto Rico and its other territories and holdings the same ways as it does states. “We can’t pretend that they’re not there. We need to make sure [Puerto Rico] has the same rights as a state so it can receive the same support states receive.”
And finally, she says, “We need to change the way the media perceives and covers Puerto Rico as a non-state.” That means covering the island in “normal” times so that it becomes real to mainland Americans who know little about its history. “If we lose the opportunity to learn from this hurricane,” she says, “if we don’t change the way we approach preparedness and mitigation, then we’ve lost a massive opportunity that we can’t regain.”