The federal response to Hurricane Maria has been hampered by Puerto Rico’s political culture and a lack of unity among leaders on the island, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator William “Brock” Long said Monday in a briefing with reporters at FEMA headquarters in Washington.
In the continental United States, “politics between Republicans and Democrats is bad enough, but in Puerto Rico, politics is even worse in many cases,” Long said, adding that divisions on the island had undermined unity of purpose there.
His comments came at the end of an hour-long session in which he and two U.S. military generals defended the Trump administration’s response to the devastating hurricane. Long singled out the total collapse of communications across Puerto Rico as the greatest impediment to delivering food, water, fuel and other supplies to desperate survivors of the storm, which hit the island Sept. 20.
Reporters also were given a glimpse of the National Response Coordination Center, a war room that’s been operating around the clock since Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in late August.
“You definitely have battle fatigue,” Long said of the protracted tropical storm season in which four hurricanes have made U.S. landfall.
Long’s stated desire has been to be apolitical, he said Monday. But Long is a political appointee of the president — he was overwhelming confirmed by the Senate in June — and the administration’s response to Maria has been subject to abundant criticism.
Most prominently, San Juan’s mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, has expressed outrage at what she sees as a failure of the administration to deliver life-sustaining resources. She posted a series of tweets this weekend accusing FEMA of doing nothing when hospitals were in crisis.
President Trump has attacked Cruz on Twitter, claiming she has shown poor leadership, and he also has blamed Puerto Rico’s poor infrastructure for much of the humanitarian crisis since the storm hit.
Long, speaking Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” said he’d long ago “filtered out” the mayor. On Monday he echoed that comment. A reporter asked him if he viewed criticism of FEMA as justified or as simply a political attack on the administration; that’s when he said the political divide in Puerto Rico is worse than it is in the mainland United States.
“What I’ve experienced firsthand is, a successful response relies on unity, okay,” Long said. “To give you an example, when you can’t get elected officials at the local level to come to a joint field office because they disagree with the politics of the governor that’s there, it makes things difficult and the information fragmented.”
Puerto Rico Gov. Richard Rosselló generally has expressed appreciation for the administration’s efforts.
Asked if there’s a lack of unity, Long said, “The unity is not where I want it to be when it comes to a unified effort.”
Reporters on the ground in Puerto Rico have heard repeatedly that there was little sign of the government, or none at all, in the days after the storm hit the island, especially in remote rural and mountainous areas that found themselves isolated. The ongoing recovery effort has been mired in bureaucracy and frustration, residents say. People often find themselves filling out paperwork in English and walking out from encounters with officials with no assurance that anything they have requested will materialize.
In the city of Yabucoa, for example, according to the mayor, FEMA officials conducted assessments of needs and have been working with him, but none of the necessary supplies have materialized for the city’s residents. There is an ongoing, desperate need for tarps, because many people lost their roofs. Heavy downpours hit the region over the weekend.
Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, attended Monday's FEMA briefing and offered new metrics on the scale of the disaster. He said officials need to remove debris that could fill 350 Olympic-size swimming pools. An estimated 60,000 homes need some kind of help, he said.
As for the critical issue of electrical power, he said 14 percent of the grid is up and running. The island needs 2,700 megawatts of electricity to operate and at last count had 376 megawatts available. Four hundred 75-foot-tall transmission towers were "wiped out" by the storm, he said. Semonite said a dam in western Puerto Rico continues to erode and will need to be rebuilt.
On Monday, Brig. Gen. Jose Reyes, assistant adjutant general of the Puerto Rican National Guard, said the opening of the port of Ponce in the south will speed the delivery of life-sustaining resources to storm survivors. Asked why such efforts have taken so long, Reyes blamed the double-whammy of hurricanes Irma and Maria.
“You have to understand, this is a situation never seen before,” Reyes said in an interview. “We were hit by two hurricanes, Cat 5, within less than 10 days. We were not even getting back on our feet after Irma, then suddenly we got hit by Maria. It’s like getting all the leadership in a warehouse and you turn off the lights and the communications, and tell them, all right, get it fixed. When you go to Texas, or you go to Florida, help will come through the roads. And it may hit a portion of Texas, but not the whole state.”
Puerto Rico's long-term rebuilding plan is beyond the responsibility of FEMA or the Army Corps, the federal officials said. They said that, under federal law, their job is to restore the island's infrastructure to the level of function it had before the hurricane, but that long-term resiliency will require an additional effort and funding from Congress.
Since before this extraordinary hurricane season began, Long has said in interviews that FEMA is not a first responder but a supporting agency answering requests from governors. He repeated that Monday.
"We're not designed to be first responders," Lond said. "We're designed to support response and recovery operations."
He later explained that the problem in Puerto Rico is diminished capacity: "A large portion of local workers as well as state workers were disaster victims. We had to play a greater first responder role than typically we would on the continental United States. We're not really designed to do that in many cases, speaking honestly."
Hernandez reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.