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Thursday, June 8, 2023

PERSPECTIVE: What Politico Missed in FEMA Hurricane Response Investigation

Some things occur in expected timeframes. Like when the swallows return from Capistrano. Or when Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow on Groundhog Day, or even – one of my favorite things – when pitchers and catchers show up for Spring Training.

And like clockwork, we are about to see an onslaught of stories about FEMA’s performance following the previous year’s disaster season. The Politico Investigation “How Trump favored Texas over Puerto Rico” is the first of what I expect will be a number of reports as Hurricane Season 2018 opens on June 1. The article is certainly well-researched, detailed and an informative read worthy of the attention. But amid all the shared details and skillfully crafted narrative in the article is what I can only call a “missing reality check.”

It’s natural for us to want to compare consecutive events, be they election cycles, sporting contests or disasters. They are fresh in our minds as well as proximity because they are happening right in front of us. Hence, it’s natural for us to want to compare two epic events: Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

For example, both occurred in Summer 2017. Both locations had record-breaking storms that struck large population centers causing unprecedented death and destruction. Both locations had power, fuel, communications and other major infrastructure (including ports) destroyed or severely disrupted. And so on.

But as valuable as comparisons may be, there comes a point when they become absolutely absurd.

For example, Texas is the second-largest state economy in the U.S. with a $1.59 trillion output, it had a 2017 population of 28.3 million people, it’s composed of 678,052 square kilometers and is geographically surrounded by the country of Mexico, the Gulf of Mexico, and the U.S. states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

In comparison, Puerto Rico ranks 82nd in the world in its GDP, it had a 2017 population of 3.337 million people, is composed of 13,791 square kilometers (making it 49 times smaller than Texas), and is geographically surrounded by the waters of the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean.

With all due respects to the great people of Texas and Puerto Rico, comparing these two unique pieces of geography and the historic storms they encountered is like comparing a state-of-the-art aircraft carrier to a kayak. There is a BIG DIFFERENCE!

Not until the 45th paragraph of the Politico article does it detail a very pertinent and undeniable fact that Puerto Rico was “1,000 miles from the United States and had no working ports or airports immediately after the disaster.”

Maybe I’m just being picky, but it would seem pretty obvious to me that being “a thousand miles from nowhere” would be a pretty significant challenge if it’s a regular supply-chain delivery into a port of entry or a full-scale disaster response operation trying to make its way to you after a record-breaking hurricane has just trashed its way through your neighborhood.

I recently attended the mid-year meeting of the National Emergency Managers Association (NEMA), where the subject and lessons learned of Houston and Hurricane Harvey and Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria seemed to dominate every discussion. From the presentations delivered by the public and private sector leaders who were deployed to both areas, to the other conversations I’ve had with some of America’s best emergency managers – every one of them will tell you how much more challenging Puerto Rico was when compared to any other disaster response or recovery operation they have ever encountered.

From Herculean logistical challenges, destroyed infrastructure, and lack of power and communications to the fact that the island’s first responders, emergency management community and civil authorities were disaster victims themselves, every challenge they could have encountered found its way into their laps.

The truth is it is far too easy for those of us in the continental United States to sit back and armchair quarterback the disaster response and recovery operation in Puerto Rico. Whenever we have a major storm or event that disrupts our power supplies, communications networks, or other infrastructure we can usually get it back in a couple of hours, if not days, afterwards.

Much of those capabilities are possible when an area is resource-rich and has ready access to the people and supplies that help life get back to normal. But it is also because of an incredibly dynamic partnership called EMAC – the Emergency Management Assistance Compact. This “contract relationship” between the U.S. states and territories allows neighboring states to come to the mutual aid of one another in their time of emergency need. That means emergency management, first responders, law enforcement officers, power and telecommunications crews, healthcare providers and more can come into that affected region (with the state’s invitation/permission) and assist with response and recovery operations.

That neighbor-helping-neighbor aspect of things is pretty easy when neighboring states share a border and can access any number of roads, bridges, airports, waterways and other structures to help you almost immediately after a disaster has happened.

But when you’re literally an island, share a border with no one and are a thousand miles from any immediate access point to make the movement of people and supplies (e.g. food, fuel, telecommunications, power sources, relief materials) reasonably possible, the challenges to response and recovery become a whole lot more complicated and cumbersome.

The same example holds true if your neighbor’s home is on fire and there is no way to reach them in a timely fashion if all the roads, fire hydrants and emergency means are beyond immediate reach and you can’t get there fast enough to support them when they call for help.

Every person I saw, listened to or spoke with following their return from Puerto Rico has talked about the transformative moment that Hurricane Maria has brought to the emergency management and homeland security community. The challenge of supporting an island is something that none of us in the continental U.S. or the EMAC community had fully appreciated or comprehended until now.

It was, to use the words of the 9/11 Commission, “a failure of imagination” to appreciate the challenges of that situation.

That’s why the lessons learned from these experiences are already reshaping the emergency management community in this country and come through loud and clear when you read the recently released FEMA Strategic Plan.

Creating a culture of preparedness, readying the nation for catastrophic disasters, and reducing the complexity of FEMA all speak to the aspiration of where FEMA wants to take the country. Imagine if those three goals had been completely fulfilled prior to last year’s hurricane season. That’s where we need to be and we have a long ways to get there.

Are there lessons learned and tough questions to be asked by reporters, elected officials and taxpayers following events like Harvey and Maria? Absolutely!

Should reporters pore over the paperwork and email trails to try to tell the story about what happened? You bet they should!

But when they do that, I hope they will take an even deeper perspective in trying to compare the reasonable facts with the context of the environment and event they are trying to report.

When they do that, the comparisons they want to share will have more meaning and be much more effective rather than be impractical or unreasonable.

Rich Cooper
Rich Cooper is Editor-at-Large for HSToday. A former senior member of DHS’ Private Sector Office (PSO), Cooper has been a frequent writer and contributor to numerous media outlets. He is Vice President for Strategic Communications & Outreach for the Space Foundation and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. Cooper is also a former Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute and has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, SAS and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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