President Trump invited reporters into the Oval Office on Tuesday to share information about Hurricane Florence, which is spinning toward North Carolina and threatening to unleash widespread destruction upon making landfall. Last year at this time, Trump was enjoying a boost in support after the government's handling of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. He seemed to be eager to embrace that aspect of his job: manager of disaster recovery efforts.
Hanging over the conversation on Tuesday, though, was Trump's handling of Hurricane Maria, which laid waste to Puerto Rico shortly after Harvey and Irma struck Texas and Florida last summer. Since Trump's well-established default position is that what he did was the correct thing to do, he insisted that the government's efforts in Puerto Rico had worked.
To hear the president tell it, the federal response in Puerto Rico had been an underappreciated success.
"I actually think it was one of the best jobs that's ever been with respect to what this is all about,” Trump said. Noting that the island had problems with its infrastructure before the storm (and, falsely, that it “had no electricity essentially before the storm"), he praised his administration's efforts.
"The job that FEMA and law enforcement and everybody did” he said, “in Puerto Rico, I think, was tremendous. I think that Puerto Rico was an incredible unsung success."
It was not.
As evidence, we need only cite Trump's comments shortly after arriving on the island several days after the storm hit.
“Every death is a horror,” he said at an event with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. “But if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here with, really, a storm that was just totally overpowering — nobody has ever seen anything like this.”
“What is your death count, as of this moment,” he asked Rosselló. “Seventeen?"
“Sixteen,” Rossello replied.
“Sixteen people certified. Sixteen people versus in the thousands,” Trump said. “You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud.”
Rosselló's estimate was too low within an hour or two of his conversation with Trump. The most recent estimate Rosselló has offered is 2,975 deaths attributable to the storm, a figure ascertained by researchers from George Washington University. That's more than 1,000 more deaths than were attributed to Katrina. Trump pointed to the Katrina response as a catastrophe, contrasted to what happened in Puerto Rico. That argument hasn't held up well.
But that's an abstract way of noting the hollowness of Trump's rhetoric. We can more specifically note the failings of the government by quoting a report from the government itself.
Earlier this month, the Government Accountability Office released a report assessing how recovery efforts after last year's hurricanes and wildfires had fared. Among the problems identified in the government's response:
- Problems with debris removal and a shortage of proper equipment for the task. “Officials said there were resource constraints,” the report reads, “so they had to prioritize debris removal from state-managed roads, before clearing local roads.”
- Insufficient bilingual employees to communicate with residents and translate documents.
- Not enough generators were available to meet demand, and not enough recovery material was positioned on the island in advance of the storm. The day before Maria made landfall, four generators had been delivered to the island. Thirty-five were delivered to Texas ahead of Harvey.
- About 1.6 million meals and 700,000 liters of water were delivered and eight shelters opened to hold 306 people. By contrast, before Irma made landfall in Florida, 4.8 million meals and 9.9 million liters of water were delivered and 249 shelters were opened to hold nearly 50,000 people. That Puerto Rico is harder to access than Florida is both accurate and noted in the report.
- FEMA faced a staff shortage of 37 percent as of Sept. 1, 2017. Of “reservists” called up to aid the recovery efforts in all the disasters, 54 percent of those deployed last year were not rated as “qualified” for their job functions. At least 15 percent refused a deployment for medical or other reasons.
- Many reservists on Puerto Rico “were not physically fit to handle conditions on the island,” according to one official, who suggested that “a fitness test should have been required before they were eligible to deploy.”
- Volunteers similarly indicated that their skill sets weren't matched to assigned tasks and that training was insufficient.
The GAO report does note, as Trump did, that Puerto Rico had existing problems that exacerbated the difficulties after the storm hit.
"Hurricane Maria devastated the already fragile and outdated infrastructure in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which complicated response efforts according to the FEMA Administrator and Puerto Rico officials,” the report reads. “Specifically, Hurricane Maria crippled the power grid, communication systems, and transportation infrastructure throughout both territories, hindering communication and delaying emergency response activities."
What's more, the damage to the island had ripple effects, including a reduced ability to house personnel sent to help with the recovery effort. That recovery effort lagged behind for months, with water and electricity slow to be restored to many regions of the island. At one point, the government pulled updates on that restoration progress from FEMA's website, though the data were restored after a public outcry.
The GAO report is careful to offer a measured assessment of the government's efforts. But FEMA was “not prepared to respond to an event like that,” the report's lead author, Chris Currie, told Bloomberg. “They were having a lot of trouble getting people there. And not just people, but qualified people."
This is the agency's responsibility. It is the government's responsibility, a responsibility meant to reduce the number of people who died in the wake of the storm from an inability to access medical services or other causes. In terms of death toll — a measure embraced by Trump himself — the response in Puerto Rico was not an incredible success.
correction: An incorrect figure for the percentage of those rated "not qualified" was corrected.