Reconstituting Puerto Rico

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Hurricane Maria wasn’t the first time Puerto Rico was hit by a hurricane this year.  It’s also not the first time President Trump has engaged in an unnecessary Twitter war this year.  And it is not the first time the federal government has been criticized for its response to a natural disaster.  So please, spare me the “President Trump doesn’t care about Puerto Rico” fixation.

Two weeks before Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico the island suffered significant setbacks from Hurricane Irma.  News reports indicated that nearly 60,000 people were already without power from Irma when Maria devastated the island.  The devastation following Maria simply worsened an already weakened energy infrastructure plagued by years of disrepair and finally bankruptcy declared in July of this year.  A public utility system in such a state of severe financial distress compromises the ability to quickly recover from any disaster and is doubly compromised by a two hurricane hit in a short period.

What’s heartbreaking is that focus on deciphering, defending or debunking the President’s Twitter war distracts from the mission at hand.  In the end that leaves everyone in the dark about what is actually happening on the island.  If the federal response to Hurricane Katrina taught us anything, messaging by the government (at all levels) was on the top of the list of areas that needed improvement.

DHS was on the ground in New Orleans just days after the levees breached, yet, there were claims that the Bush administration was slow to respond.  Coordination with state and local government officials began immediately and continued for several months.  But the federal response was reportedly slow.  People stranded in their homes were rescued, a unified command center was established to provide coordinated response to the city’s needs . . . all in extremely short order.  But the federal response was deemed slow.  In fact, Kanye West proclaimed to the world that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” in response to reports that the federal government was slow to deliver aid to the overwhelming Black population in New Orleans.

Likewise, federal resources were on the ground in Puerto Rico soon after Irma skirted the island, yet we hear that the Trump administration is slow to respond.  According to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Brock Long, although some personnel evacuated the island when it was clear that Maria was scheduled to make a full-on landing in Puerto Rico, there was still a Department of Defense and FEMA staff presence on the island to ensure immediate action after Maria passed.  But news of slow response by the federal government continued to gain steam.

Ten days after Maria’s departure, Long was asked if President Trump’s tweets about San Juan’s mayor and her discontent with the federal response in Puerto Rico hurt or helped the recovery effort.

Long was not pressed to give the press unfettered access to the unified command center in Puerto Rico or any of the disasters managed by his agency.  Long was not asked about the number of major disasters currently on his plate (despite volunteering that information) or to layout his approach to managing that portfolio of disasters.  He was not asked whether any or all of the other disasters had a negative impact on the agency’s ability to address the devastation in Puerto Rico.  Instead, the focus, simply, veered head on into the divisive, the silly and the salacious.

It is simply hard to fathom, through the lens of one who has been on the ground following a natural disaster, any focus on something as petty as a Twitter war when lives are actually at stake.  Surely America has become accustomed to the off-the-cuff Twitter style of the President.  It is not uncommon for local leaders in the midst of a disaster to be aggressive in making a statement of needs, including expressing concern that the relief and assistance is slow to materialize.  What has become uncommon, however, is the way America seems entranced with anything negative about President Trump.  Far too often that fixation is less about informing the country and more about pointing a finger.

Americans have become too accustomed to a repetitive “breaking news” approach to information.  When a disaster occurs, we’re sure to see well-known, accomplished journalists and meteorologists “on the scene”.  Images of on-air talent tethered to the balcony of a building in the midst of a hurricane or wading in water during a flood, for instance, actually becomes the news.  We need those journalists embedded in the unified command if their desire is to keep us plugged into the success or failure of our government’s response.  We do not need America to become a spectator to its own demise.

Disaster response is a tremendously fluid task.  The best way to know what is being done at any time during that response is through presence at the unified command.  That command is the heartbeat of the response.  It’s where priorities are set and resources are managed and filtered down to joint field offices.  State and local officials (governor and mayors in the case of Puerto Rico) are key members of the decision-making team in the unified command model.  Federal officials descending upon a locale after a disaster depend on the local officials’ knowledge of the landscape, the people and their needs to move through their task quickly and efficiently.  It is through that vehicle that local officials understand what is available and how best to get it from Washington, D.C.

Let’s not forget that Maria was a monster hurricane, leaving much of Puerto Rico’s three million plus population without food, electricity, water, sewage, homes and an operational government.  That means roadways were left impassable.  Seaports and airports were inoperable.  It means government workers are displaced.  That means that federal support in Puerto Rico is trying to reconstitute a government structure.  But reports that the federal government’s response to the needs of American citizens in Puerto Rico is slow is the breaking news.

Narrowing our focus to a compliant that the response is slow is irresponsible.  It’s natural for a local official to be laser focused on his or her constituents’ needs.  It’s similarly natural for media outlets to give that official an avenue to make those concerns widely known.  Severely limited access to seaports, airport and roads is also a natural occurrence following a devastating hurricane.

On the contrary, fixation on the negative that persists for days is unnatural.  It has the potential to mislead.  It clouds our judgement.  It paints Americans with broad brush strokes.  Americans are then less likely to recognize what is simply noise.  And then we take sides.

When we take sides we are divided into either the group supporting the President or the group supporting San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.  Certainly, Mayor Cruz has valid concerns and is due support in her quest to serve her constituents.  And we certainly know that President Trump is incapable of understanding that his in-your-face, you-push-me-I’ll-push-back style is not productive.  Certainly, no one should support or promote that.

What we don’t hear enough about is the impact that Puerto Rico’s financial woes bear on the coordinated effort.  Why?  A unified command has, at its core, coordination between personnel from all sectors.  Have we received, in light of this disaster, recurring reports on the declining number of government and Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority employees no longer available to be a part of the recovery effort because they lost jobs as a result of the financial strife in Puerto Rico long before Irma or Maria arrived?

The answer is no.  The mainland has been slow to respond – repeatedly – to the hardships of the American citizens in Puerto Rico that have nothing to do with the hurricanes but everything to do with Puerto Rico’s ability to have a true voice in the recovery efforts.

It doesn’t matter how many training exercises are done in preparation for disasters, if you do not have the money or the personnel to meet the task you begin at a huge disadvantage.  No matter how much money the federal government pushes to Puerto Rico, there will be a shortfall because Puerto Rico is broke.  That doesn’t malign the people of Puerto Rico, it is simply a fact that impacts the recovery process because Puerto Rico will face a handicap when there is a need to supplement the assistance coming from the federal government.  If roads are impassable and airports and seaports aren’t immediately accessible you can’t get help in or people out until those deterrents are addressed.  If the power grid is dilapidated and ill-maintained it will take more to get the island up and running.

It also doesn’t matter how ridiculous the President’s Twitter wars get.  Constantly highlighting the ridiculousness doesn’t repair the power grid or get food and medical supplies to people in Puerto Rico.  It merely emboldens this president.

Slow, my friend, is relative.  So please, spare me the “President Trump doesn’t care about Puerto Rico” fixation.