Don’t buy revisionist history: Hurricane Maria response was the best it could be

Don’t buy revisionist history: Hurricane Maria response was the best it could be
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The one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria making landfall on Puerto Rico has brought about a bookshelf of revisionist history ignoring the logistical nightmare faced by the private and public sector in responding to that hurricane.

Since Puerto Rico’s financial crisis, the infrastructure has been crumbling, becoming worse day-by-day. The Atlantic reported in May 2016 that Puerto Rico’s financial crisis had created a humanitarian crisis, and this was more than a year before the island’s crumbling infrastructure was hit by Mother Nature. Even then, electricity was unreliable and inaccessible, while homes and buildings were already dilapidated.

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As Hurricane Maria bore down on the financially, socially and politically crippled island, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was doing precisely what needed to be done when faced with almost third-world circumstances. FEMA was coordinating closely with the Department of Defense to provide the logistical support that FEMA simply does not have for such a situation. 

Prior to landfall amphibious ships including light amphibious carriers Kearsarge and Wasp and the amphibious landing ship dock Oak Hill were being dispatched to Puerto Rico ahead of landfall. These large ships have flight decks capable of handling heavy-left CH-53 helicopters that were able to move into rural, blocked areas unreachable except by air. 

And while these maneuvers show the one-step-ahead logistical planning necessary for a disaster zone like Puerto Rico, the military still has to provide landing zones in rural areas for helicopters. That means clearing landing zones of debris and downed powerlines so the helicopters can land safely. 

And while the military did an outstanding job of providing that logistical support, the reality on the ground was like a roadblock. Absent a functioning government or even a legitimate non-governmental organization to provide distribution of commodities, the delivery of commodities, medical supplies and other emergency supplies would either be delayed or subjected to corrupt distribution until a legitimate distribution system could be established. This was the reality in Puerto Rico.

While the military coordination with FEMA was textbook, that coordination still has to face the reality of roads in disrepair, an electrical grid that was antiquated at best, and ineffective if not corrupt local government in some locations. That is the same as throwing commodities at a brick wall. There is no guarantee those commodities arrive on-time or where they are needed most. In those situations, the response phase can be almost perfect, yet the reality is the response doesn’t meet expectations of the public or those affected by the disaster.

FEMA cannot fix roads in advance of a storm. An antiquated power grid is a problem of the private sector. And ineffective or corrupt local government is simply a reality to be faced and worked around, not resolved by FEMA in the midst of a response.

As we reflect a year later on the FEMA response to Hurricane Maria few people focus on the excellent coordination by FEMA and the Department of Defense. The response phase was the best it could be under the circumstances.

If the response phase was excellent, what are we focused on at the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria? The death toll.

Why do we focus on death tolls? Because they are one metric of the magnitude and size of a disaster. We can measure disasters by economic costs, federal taxpayer costs, lost income, businesses destroyed, homes destroyed. And, we can look at lives lost.

A total of 2,974 lives were lost in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Some estimate that 1,245 lives were lost during Hurricane Katrina. But even the Hurricane Katrina numbers were subject to dispute and controversy. The Houston Chronicle reported five years after Hurricane Katrina that the names of hundreds of the dead remained a mystery and the death toll was mired in dispute.

Every organization, whether governmental, academic, private or individual, has its own methodology for determining correlation or causation between a natural disaster and an individual death. For example, FEMA has a specific rule requiring a medical examiner, coroner or medical doctor to directly relate the cause of death to the disaster. Other organizations use different methodologies to correlate a death to a disaster.

Regardless of which methodology is used, the number of deaths attributable to a disaster is a metric only. Not to minimize any individual death, each of which is tragic, but the total number of deaths attributable to a specific disaster will vary widely. 

Academics and disaster officials can debate endlessly over methodologies for counting disaster-related deaths. But the fact remains disaster-related deaths are a function of so many different variables that it is almost impossible to settle on this-or-that methodology as the proper way to count disaster-related deaths.

Instead, on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria, the American public should focus on the extraordinary improvement in FEMA’s response capability and its coordination with the Department of Defense in a logistically-challenging disaster. An effective response requires coordination and responsibility by citizens, local government, state government and federal government. In addition to those four legs of an effective response, it also requires intra-governmental coordination at the federal level. Hurricane Maria showed the American public that FEMA and the Department of Defense are making great strides in improving that coordination.

Michael D. Brown is the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and under secretary of Homeland Security for President George W. Bush from 2001-2005. He is the author of “Deadly Indifference – The Perfect [Political] Storm.” Follow him on Twitter at @michaelbrownusa