A week on from Hurricane Maria’s landfall, Puerto Rico remains objectively devastated. Amid growing criticism, President Trump and acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke have forcefully defended the administration’s response, arguing the crisis conditions reflect unique challenges in Puerto Rico. Duke on Thursday proclaimed herself “very satisfied” with the response so far, calling it “a good news story.”
And yet nearly all of the island remains without power, almost half the population lacks safe drinking water, hospitals are struggling to keep the lights on and fuel shortages are making it hard to deliver aid to those who need it.
Is this the Trump administration’s “Brownie” moment? Or is the White House just getting a bad rap?
As the head of foreign disaster assistance during the Obama administration, I managed the responses to numerous large-scale disasters. It is true that the White House is facing legitimate hurdles, but its response could have been far better managed. Here are three factors important in assessing the quality of the response so far:
1. Disaster response logistics are always difficult — and are even more challenging on islands.
When a major disaster strikes an island, the response is slower than on the mainland. That was true in the early response to the Haiti earthquake, and the early response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. We’re seeing that again in Puerto Rico.
That’s because it’s easier to prepare for disaster when people have somewhere to go. With good early warning, people can leave en masse, as happened in Florida before Hurricane Irma hit Sept. 4. If the disaster damages public services badly, people on the mainland can more easily go where services remain available. And it’s easier to deliver aid when you can choose from a variety of land transportation routes.
None of that is true for a small island. You simply can’t evacuate several million people before the storm hits; afterward, those people can’t spontaneously leave for better-served areas. Damaged seaports and airports become huge logistical bottlenecks. Aid that could be delivered in hours to an inland disaster zone must wait for days while vital transport infrastructure is repaired.
2. Managing several disasters at once is really, really hard.
Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico just after the United States had been hit with two of the most damaging storms in decades. Hurricane Harvey deluged Houston with historic levels of rain; Irma left Florida reeling just a few days later. Each of these storms prompted massive, concurrent deployments of disaster responders from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, search-and-rescue teams from across the country, and a bevy of federal support personnel.
Then came Maria — the most ferocious and complex of the three.
In disaster relief terms, this is akin to what my team at USAID faced internationally when the Ebola outbreak exploded in July and August of 2014. At that same moment, the Islamic State’s advance across Iraq was driving hundreds of thousands from their homes and had trapped a battered Yazidi population on top of Mount Sinjar; a war in South Sudan was pushing that country toward famine; and Syria’s already-huge humanitarian emergency was worsening.
Managing simultaneous mega-crises with finite staff and resources inevitably strains an agency’s performance. I have no doubt that FEMA is doing its utmost to balance the needs in Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico. But as I experienced in 2014, normal management trade-offs develop into impossible choices about how far an agency can go in cannibalizing itself to address competing demands. Extraordinary measures become necessary — and those require presidential leadership.
3. Ultimately, the buck stops with the president.
Puerto Rico is a uniquely challenging emergency, and FEMA is uniquely overtaxed. But the job must still get done. A complex crisis of this magnitude tests — and defines — a presidency.
President George W. Bush faced a similar challenge with Katrina, and never recovered from the perceptions that he had mismanaged the response. He learned that no matter how hard your team is working, the public has little patience if the situation remains catastrophic. A president must pay close enough attention to recognize when the effort is falling short, and be ready to kick things into a higher gear as soon as needed. That takes real engagement: not just the occasional briefing and photo op, but a willingness to set aside other priorities and begin applying creative and unorthodox measures.
In the early days of the Ebola epidemic, President Barack Obama faced this kind of challenge. Despite our best efforts, the spread of the disease was still outpacing the international effort to contain it. There was palpable fear that it would destroy much of West Africa and begin reaching the United States at scale. Obama made the unusual decision to deploy thousands of military personnel on a public health mission in Africa, despite deep unease within the Pentagon about risks to the force. He authorized a major international deployment of the U.S. Public Health Service, normally a domestic agency. He spent hours reaching out to other national leaders to mobilize teams and resources from other countries. And he put the entire overseas effort under the coordination of USAID’s disaster arm, rather than under the Centers for Disease Control or the Defense Department. These were unusual steps, and each one carried risks. But ultimately his clear direction and hands-on engagement enabled a scale-up of effort that went well beyond what had initially appeared possible.
We have yet to see the Trump White House show a comparable degree of creativity or engagement for Puerto Rico.
In the storm’s immediate aftermath, the president appeared more focused on the NFL — in sharp contrast to his handling of Florida and Texas, which dominated his personal messaging and the White House’s public statements for days on end. The degree of public focus from the president is important, both for the solidarity and empathy it conveys to suffering Americans and for the degree of urgency it prompts across the federal government. The administration waited until Tuesday — six days after Maria’s landfall — to amplify its engagement, announcing that the president would visit Puerto Rico next week and outlining steps to expand the U.S. military’s engagement.
Notably, the Defense Department deployment remains far smaller than its response to the Haiti earthquake in 2010. And the administration waited several more days still to waive the “Jones Act,” an archaic century-old law that forbids foreign shipping between U.S. ports, contributing expense and delay to aid shipments. That move came only after widespread criticism of the president’s comment that the shipping industry opposed such a waiver; similar waivers had been issued far more rapidly for Florida and Texas.
Increased White House engagement in recent days gives some basis to hope that the response effort may now start turning the corner. Given the dismal conditions in Puerto Rico and the response hiccups so far, that would be very good news.
Jeremy Konyndyk is a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development and teaches humanitarian field operations at Georgetown University. He served from 2013-2017 as the Obama administration’s director for foreign disaster assistance at USAID, overseeing the U.S. government’s Ebola response in West Africa and numerous other emergencies. Follow him on Twitter at @jeremykonyndyk.