Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria

September 5, 2018

I’m glad Gov. Cuomo has been talking about what happened to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. It should never have dropped out of public discussion both for the sake of the residents of Puerto Rico and for the rest of us.

Katrina undid George Bush when many in New Orleans and the surrounding area got no help. The public was disgusted when Bush praised the head of FEMA for “doing a heck of a job” four days after the hurricane struck. After Hurricane Maria hit, the whole island of Puerto Rico was without power. Half were still powerless half a year later, jerry-rigging connections or using generators for life-saving equipment. At least 11,000 US citizens were still powerless in June, with power authorities still figuring out who was without. But it didn’t bother Trump. The storm hit Puerto Rico on September 20. In early October, Trump announced he’d already done enough.

Dealing with weather disasters takes advance planning. Reacting after the damage is done is too late for many of the injured and displaced. A member of the Albany Law Board who worked on disaster planning for the Red Cross described the process to me. One has to anticipate needs, delivery routes, and get things to staging areas from which they can be delivered before the storm hits, together with the vehicles needed to bring supplies to the affected people. That’s complex and difficult but it can be done because we have considerable advance warning of where major weather events will strike. Not rocket science, it’s a well-worn path of jobs that need to be done.

Puerto Rico is not unmapped far away frontier territory. It’s an island, which should have suggested advance planning for sea-worthy ships and protected areas on the island. Its miles of unpaved mountain roads should have suggested the need for helicopters, like those New York supplied when the Feds didn’t. FEMA was busy with other disasters but that too was predictable. It didn’t raise the alarm and ask for help until well after the storm passed by. Only then was the U.S. Army, itself skilled in disaster relief abroad, permitted to go into Puerto Rico.

Some politicians like to charge that the damage was Puerto Rico’s own fault, the result of graft, corruption and mismanagement. That’s a misdirected ascription of collective guilt. Most Puerto Ricans are related to those ills only as victims. And the beneficiaries were the same people and institutions that we like to hold harmless, the wealthiest people and corporations. The electrical grid was unable to resist storm damage because the corporate leadership left it that way. But we prefer to blame an island and an ethnic or racial group. It would be such bad form to notice who actually caused and who was victimized by the problems in Puerto Rico.

Worse, it hasn’t been allowed to use federal money to fix anything in the cleanup, only to rebuild not one jot better than before, ready to collapse again in the next storm.

All this reflects incompetence and lack of concern about the welfare of Americans. We are all diminished by humanitarian disasters. And disasters are contagious. As John Donne so eloquently put it, “never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee,” for all of us.

My classmate, Judge José Cabranes, wrote in the Washington Post that Puerto Ricans would be leaving the island and coming to the mainland. They have, and as citizens, they may, and should, vote where they settle.

— This commentary was originally scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 4, 2018. The broadcast by NPR and WAMC of the hearings on the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh, however, preempted broadcast on the 4th. We plan to broadcast it at a later date but I am posting it now nonetheless.

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