Still in limbo a year after Harvey and Maria

Still in limbo a year after Harvey and Maria

Hurricane Lane has just struck Hawaii bringing record rainfall and devastation to the Island. For people who live along the U.S. Eastern seaboard, near the Gulf of Mexico or anywhere in the Caribbean, being reminded that we are still less than halfway through the 2018 hurricane season must be unsettling, to say the least.

To make matters worse, recovery from last year’s season of storms — which included Hurricanes Harvey Irma and Maria — is sluggish, incomplete and lacking a cohesive vision or timeline for completion.

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These are not abstract critiques. Consider Texas where Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc last summer. We are talking about thousands upon thousands of families in places like Rockport, Beaumont and Port Arthur where homes are mold infested, plumbing and appliances unusable, cars needed for getting to work wrecked. 

The queue for securing FEMA funds to rebuild badly damaged homes is long and the paperwork is soul-sucking. Even when the FEMA check arrives, the payments may cover no more than a fraction of what’s needed to make homes livable again. Families are in limbo. 

And, believe it or not, the recovery “report card” in Puerto Rico is even worse than it is in Texas. 

Putting aside the large and small missteps that defined the immediate response to Hurricane Maria, the recovery in Puerto Rico is sputtering and underfunded. Thousands of families are struggling to get their lives back to normal.

The cost of rebuilding Puerto Rico is estimated to be at least $120 billion, yet only $50 billion or so has been appropriated thus far — and only a fraction of that has been made available for disbursement.  

Less than two weeks after Maria’s landfall, I was at a press conference in San Juan where a senior official from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers presented an impressive — even inspiring- description of their intent to build a new, 21st century electrical grid for the island to replace the extraordinarily fragile system that the first gusts of Maria knocked down, leaving almost the entire Island without power. The new vision of a resilient and sustainable system would include buried main power lines, microgrids and extensive use of solar power. 

But the money never appeared to build that state of art new grid. Just to get power back up, Puerto Rico had to build back the same old fragile, jerry-rigged electrical system.

Drive around some of the Island’s central municipalities and there are still thousands of homes covered by blue tarp roofs, a depressing daily reminder that major repairs are still badly needed. 

And for tens of thousands of children on the Island, life is decidedly not back to normal. Of some 850 schools in Puerto Rico, nearly 300 are permanently closed due to storm damage. The trauma of the storms, the overwhelming stress experienced by families and the painfully slow return to some version of normal life can have short and long-term physical and mental health consequences for children.

Puerto Ricans — American citizens after all — are demoralized. And many of those with means or relatives on the mainland have left or are considering leaving the Island. The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College on New York calculates that more than 135,000 people have already gone from Puerto Rico as of March, and most not likely to return.

All of this said, it is worth noting that there were and are bright spots. FEMA professionals and the highly competent medical teams from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services worked effectively and tirelessly in the immediate weeks after Maria struck the Island, though many were exhausted after intense efforts in response to Hurricane Harvey in Texas.

What’s more, there are countless innovative and unstoppable Puerto Ricans who have been working tirelessly since last September committed to rebuilding the Island they love. 

Still, these bright lights stand in contrast to the unacceptable incompetence or dispassion of officials who have failed to provide the resources and the leadership to fund and organize a rapid and satisfactory recovery in disaster-struck communities.

Maybe last year’s disasters will truly be a wake-up call. Too often, though, after the drama of the raging storms and after the reporters and cameras leave, we treat the catastrophe more like a “snooze alarm”. We hit that button and drift back into complacency; waiting, like lemmings, for the coming storms.

What’s needed now is clear. 

First, let’s unlock the bureaucracy and pause the partisan politics long enough to fast track all the funds necessary to support full recovery in Texas and Puerto Rico. 

Next, Congress should immediately establish a non-partisan permanent national commission to investigate federal response to and recovery from the 2017 hurricanes

Let’s truly understand the lessons to be learned and commit to doing what’s needed to prepare for and recover from the inevitable storms that will bring more devastation to vulnerable communities on our overheated planet.

Irwin Redlener, MD, is the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and professor of Health Policy and Management at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. He is the author of “Americans At Risk: Why We Are Not Prepared For Megadisasters and What We Can Do Now,” published in 2006. Follow him on Twitter @IrwinRedlenerMD

*This piece has been updated