The Trump Administration remains on defense about its handling of Hurricane Maria, three weeks after the Category 4 hurricane made landfall on Puerto Rico.
In recent days, both President Trump and the nation’s top emergency manager have defended the Administration’s handling of the disaster, Trump has tweeted a self-congratulatory video and White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders has repeatedly shared “positive news” about the recovery in press briefings.
“I’ve done a very good job in Puerto Rico — haven’t been given the same kind of credit, but if you speak to the governor of Puerto Rico and other representatives, you’ll see that they were thrilled,” Trump told Forbes magazine.
Despite the Administration’s defenses, Puerto Rico remains in trouble. Authorities now put the death toll at 45, with more than 110 people still unaccounted for. Only 16 percent of the island territory’s residents have electricity. Hospitals are running low on medicine, and a shortage of safe drinking water remains a concern.
After widely praised responses to hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida, respectively, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has faced questions over the preparations for and pace of the response to Hurricane Maria. But Brock Long, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, argued that his agency’s role was improperly understood.
“FEMA is not a first responder,” he told reporters in the conference room of the National Response Coordination Center, where he leads daily coordination meetings on emergency response. “We’re not designed to be a first responder.”
The 16,000-person strong agency is most visible during times of disaster, but its primary mission, Long said, was supporting state and local leaders when their capacity to help themselves has been exceeded. After leading the response to four hurricanes in six weeks — affecting as many as 25 million people from Texas to the U.S. Virgin Islands — the agency’s own capacity is being tested like never before, Long said.
“We really haven’t had a chance to sit down and catch our breath and really absorb everything that’s happened,” Long said. As much as 85 percent of his agency’s employees have been deployed to the field, the NRCC has been staffed with dozens, if not hundreds, of officials on a 24/7 basis since mid-August. Government employees who manage grant programs have been seconded to assist as call-center operators or assisting in managing the flow of goods into storm-ravaged areas.
Long called the Puerto Rico response operation one of the most logistically challenging operations in the nation’s history. The storm essentially wiped out the island’s communications system and power grid, and damaged all of its airlines and ports.
The initial need wasn’t clear to FEMA or even the island’s governor until days after the storm because of the slow pace of damage assessments.
Long also blamed the uniquely intense politics on Puerto Rico for the delayed response, saying it was more extreme than that on the continental U.S.
“Politics between Republicans and Democrats is bad enough — but in Puerto Rico, politics is even worse,” he told reporters. “When you can’t get elected officials at the local level to come to a joint field office because they disagree with the politics of the governor that’s there, it makes things difficult.”
The remarks were an implicit criticism of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who a day before he said he’d “filtered out” of the response operation. Cruz has been a frequent guest on cable news in which she has criticized the pace of the response operation and the Trump Administration.
She did not appear ready to let up, either. On Wednesday, Cruz told a reporter that she doesn’t care about Trump’s criticism of her.
“This isn’t about me or politics,” she said. “I’m not going to be the face you see out there just giving you a box of food for the photo op. I’m the face of the person who is going to make sure somebody gets that to you … so like the last scene of Gone With the Wind — ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.'”
Since Harvey hit in August, more than 3.5 million people have registered for disaster assistance through FEMA, a number expected to grow dramatically as more people in Puerto Rico register. On the island, the agency will be delivering millions of meals a day for at least the next month. To reach people in remote towns and villages, FEMA and the Department of Defense deployed deployed loudspeakers and helicopters dropping leaflets with information on how to receive aid.
Long rejected criticism of the agency’s decision to withdraw personnel from the island in advance of Maria. Responders to the earlier storms, as well as their equipment, were pulled out so as not to become victims themselves, he explained. Navy ships and commercial vessels were circling near the island, but couldn’t make port because of have damage.
Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, described the massive, but painstaking, task of restoring power to the island — an effort that is expected to take months. About 400 of the 75-foot transmission towers that serve as the island’s utility backbone are down, and officials could only guess how many of the roughly 1 million wooden utility poles were felled by the winds. The island’s power plants were also extensively damaged, requiring months or years of repairs.
On Sunday, FEMA awarded a contract for a temporary power plant to be moved by barge to Puerto Rico to help restore power to the island’s electrical grid, Semonite said, adding it would take at least a month for it to arrive and be made functional.
But FEMA and the Corps are only tasked with restoring the island back to pre-storm conditions. Long said it would be up to Congress and the island’s near-bankrupt government to rebuild for resilience to the next storm, whenever it comes.
Long argued that the nation’s entire framework for viewing disasters needs to be upended. “It’s got to be more than FEMA improving,” Long said, adding that state and local governments need to make the tough budgeting and zoning choices to be able to withstand disasters. “The key to success is at the local level.”