IN JULY, the Puerto Rican government released a draft report that acknowledged what local organizations, independent studies and common sense have been telling us for months: The death toll from Hurricane Maria was significantly higher than the official count of 64. Though the report is still being finalized, the preliminary draft estimates that 1,427 lives were lost as a result of the hurricane. This figure, which is in line with public-health research estimating death tolls in the thousands, highlights just how catastrophic Maria was.
The numbers are grim, but even worse is the fact that many of these deaths could have been avoided. Last month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency released its after-action report evaluating its response to the 2017 storm season. The report outlined numerous areas in which the federal response fell short. The agency underestimated the amount of food and fresh water required and how hard it would be to transport supplies to Puerto Rico. Its warehouse in Puerto Rico — which was already understocked — was largely emptied after Hurricane Irma hit the U.S. Virgin Islands two weeks before Maria landed, leaving Puerto Ricans without basic disaster-relief supplies such as cots and tarpaulins.
These shortages were exacerbated by personnel and planning lapses. According to the report, FEMA had thousands fewer workers than needed and had to rely on staff from other agencies who were often untrained in disaster relief. It had previously identified some of the logistical issues hampering recovery efforts but did not take immediate action to resolve them. An initial draft of the report, obtained by the New York Times, indicated that the agency relied on a five-year-old earthquake and tsunami plan. Overall, the report paints a picture of an agency that was entirely unprepared for such a large-scale disaster.
This assessment is a far cry from President Trump’s statements that Puerto Ricans should be “proud” of the death toll and that his administration had “done a great job with an impossible situation.” The situation was indeed dire, but the agency’s own evaluation shows that the federal response was far from enough. Given that most of the deaths from the hurricane took place during the recovery, who knows how many lives could have been saved if the administration had responded with the urgency required?
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that this year’s hurricane season will be less severe than normal but, as climate change continues to affect weather systems, we can expect more deadly storms on the horizon. It is time for authorities to step up. FEMA’s report issues a number of recommendations, including increasing readiness stocks outside the continental United States, improving transportation planning and developing a better understanding of supply chains on the ground. The agency has already acted on some and integrated others into its four-year strategic plan. It should continue to implement these suggestions efficiently, or thousands more could lose their livelihoods, homes and even lives the next time a powerful storm slams into the United States.