Study: Puerto Rico received slower, less 'generous' disaster aid than Texas, Florida

Study: Puerto Rico received slower, less 'generous' disaster aid than Texas, Florida
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Puerto Rico received slower and less "generous" federal assistance after Hurricane María than Texas and Florida did after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, according to a study published Tuesday.

The researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of Utah analyzed federal spending and resource allocation estimates as well as direct and indirect storm-mortality counts to compare the responses to the three devastating 2017 hurricanes based on severity.

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"Our results show that the federal response was faster and more generous across measures of money and staffing to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida, compared with Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico," they wrote in the report.

"This result would be unsurprising if Hurricane Maria was less damaging than Irma and Harvey. However, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma made landfall as category four hurricanes, and Maria hit Puerto Rico as a ‘high-end’ category 4, or just below the threshold of a category 5 hurricane."

"Thus, assuming that disaster responses should be commensurate to the degree of storm severity and need of the population, the federal response is questionable and the degree of variation between the disaster responses is problematic," they wrote.

The researchers explained that the response to María was hamstrung by federal staffing deficiencies and lack of resources.

In September 2017, shortly after Maria slammed the island, President TrumpDonald John TrumpDem senator says Zelensky was 'feeling the pressure' to probe Bidens 2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Trump calls latest impeachment hearings 'a great day for Republicans' MORE said that the response was hampered because of the distance between Puerto Rico and the mainland U.S. as well as the ocean.

"This is an island, surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water,” the president said.

The report's authors specifically refuted this argument, saying that "geographic limitations" do not fully explain the "magnitude of this variation" in the different responses to the hurricanes.

"Federal staffing rates in Puerto Rico reached comparable levels in three times the amount of time as Texas and 30 times the amount of time for Irma," the researchers wrote. "The magnitude of this variation seems difficult to explain by geography, particularly in the context of an ongoing disaster."

The island originally reported a death toll of 64 from María but increased it to 2,975 after a government-commissioned study by George Washington University in Aug. 2018.

“Numbers alone cannot and do not provide a complete picture of what is needed to help communities recover,” a spokesperson from FEMA told The Hill. “FEMA’s response efforts in Puerto Rico is the largest and longest commodity delivery mission in the agency’s history. Commodities were delivered by air, off-road vehicles and even on foot.”

“The insinuation that federal response was “slower” is absurd," they added. “FEMA has and will always work tirelessly to support state, local, tribal and territorial partners to respond to and recover from disasters. FEMA remains on the island to this day, ensuring that the people of Puerto Rico are able to emerge from the crisis more resilient than ever.” 

In a statement, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s office used the study to further criticize the federal government’s response to María.

"The study released today is further evidence that the federal government dragged its feet during the biggest disaster in our recorded history, which took the lives of almost 3,000 citizens," said Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, which represents the island's government in the U.S.

"We can only hope that the mounting evidence serves to improve the federal government's response during the next natural disaster," he added.