In 2017, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria hit the United States in August and September. The storms blamed for the deaths of more 3,000 people and caused billions of dollars in damage.
Although all three hurricanes were destructive, a new study from online journal BMJ Global Health indicates the US federal response to the hurricane disaster in Puerto Rico was lopsided compared to the response in Florida and Texas.
Using public data, BMJ created a timeline of staff and funding coming directly from FEMA to those affected by the hurricanes. The study focused on measures of federal spending, distributed federal resources, and direct and indirect storm-mortality tolls. The study says its results show the federal response was faster and “more generous” in terms of funding and staffing for Hurricane Irma in Florida and Harvey in Texas than for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is a self-governing US territory whose citizens are Americans.
All three hurricanes made landfall as Category 4 storms, and the study indicates its results would make sense if the damage for Maria was less expensive or less altering than those of the other storms. According to CNN reporting, the damage estimate for Maria is $90 billion, $125 billion for Harvey and $50 billion for Irma.
The combination of direct and indirect storm fatalities also plays a role in understanding the amount of damage inflicted upon the areas, the study says. Hurricane Irma led to 92 deaths, Hurricane Harvey was blamed for 103 deaths and Maria led to 3,040 deaths, according to numbers compiled by BMJ Global Health.
The study also shows a disparity in the time it took for victims to receive relief. In the first nine days after Harvey hit, those affected received $141 million from FEMA. Those affected by Irma had received nearly $100 million after the first nine days. Maria victims received nearly $6 million in the first nine days. Within the first two months, the study finds that those impacted by Irma and Harvey both received about $1 billion in relief. It took nearly four months for Maria aid to reach the same amount.
The study also reports disparity in staffing. Nine days after Harvey made landfall, 30,000 federal employees were posted in Texas. Nine days after Irma, 16,200 were sent to Florida. Nine days after Maria, there were 10,000 federal workers in Puerto Rico. The study says, “At the peak, 19,000 federal employees were posted in Puerto Rico, one month after landfall, well short of the peak for Texas of 31,000.”
The Trump administration has been criticized for its response to Hurricane Maria on multiple fronts, including by San Juan, Puerto Rico, Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. The mayor called out the administration in 2018 for not caring about the Puerto Rican people, and the White House responded by saying it was proud of the recovery work being done. President Trump called federal efforts fantastic, and blamed the island’s weak infrastructure and geography for slowing efforts in sending recovery.
Cruz responded to the White House statement, saying, “What is there to be proud of? 2,975 dead. Is that what he’s proud of? Is (the President) proud of that maybe this is over, and he thinks it will go away? It’s not going to go away. We’re going to remember this forever. This will be a stain in his presidency for as long as he lives because rather than coming here to support us, he came here to throw paper towels at us.”
When asked for comment on Tuesday, FEMA referred CNN to the agency’s 2017 Hurricane Season After-Action Report. In the report, FEMA says it “entered the hurricane season with a force strength less than its target, resulting in staffing shortages across the incidents.”
FEMA notes the challenges it faced while supplying Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands with relief, saying it “experienced challenges” in tracking resources “moving across multiple modes of transportation … due to staffing shortages and business process shortfalls.”
In a statement in 2018 that accompanied the report, FEMA Administrator Brock Long acknowledged the difficulty the hurricane season posed for the agency and the need for improvement.
“The response to the hurricanes demonstrated the need for emergency managers at all levels to improve collaboration with the critical infrastructure sectors. These disasters demonstrate that our current organizing structures are insufficient to promote this collaboration,” Long said.
The new study concludes there could be a variety of reasons why the delay in Puerto Rico aid took place, but data shows the responses between the hurricanes were vastly different and created “serious consequences for acute and long-term health and recovery efforts.”
BMJ Global Health describes itself as “an open access, online journal from BMJ dedicated to publishing high-quality peer-reviewed content relevant to those involved in global health.”