Tuesday, July 23, 2019

[Editorial] Masters of Disaster

By on September 20, 2018

Editor’s note: The following editorial originally appeared in the Sept. 20, 2018, issue of Caribbean Business.

The recent firefight between politicos on the national and insular stage over the thousands of people who died in Puerto Rico as a consequence of Hurricane Maria has the truth buried beneath layers of mud that have more to do with upcoming midterm elections than the true tragedy at hand. The salvos fired this time came in an email thread between high-ranking military personnel tasked with the oversight of search and rescue operations in Puerto Rico received by this newspaper and other media outlets.

The email thread dated Sept. 29, 2017, has Department of Defense field operatives reporting the discovery of “mass graves in mudslide areas. Are soldiers part of the extraction? Ordering behavioral health and chaplains”; to which a Brigadier General responds: “Are we using general-purpose troops for the extraction of remains? We probably don’t have time to get FSRT [a Field Search & Rescue Team] there for the first tranche, but we might want to order them up. If there’s one mudslide, there’s probably more. Right? Does anyone have an estimate of what we are looking at?”

At 9 p.m. that same evening, the field operative responds: “We will know more. Urban search and rescue started uncovering today, right before sunset, don’t know if it is families or an entire town that was trying to avoid flooding and got buried by landslide. Planning for the worst.”

The thread is consistent with news of a mudslide in Yauco first reported on Sept. 30 by NCM News, a news service with global circulation. When NCM broke the story of the mudslide, it sought further information about the event from officials in the Rosselló administration. Sadly, rather than inform the media it had no further information about the Yauco landslide, the government sought to discredit NCM News for allegedly reporting falsehoods. That is unfortunate—the truth should be sought, not covered over with the mud slung by public officials.

President Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore on Visualhunt.com)

A source with ties to the Trump administration told this newspaper that the thread between the high-ranking military personnel is authentic and was leaked by Democrats to tarnish President Trump, who has done enough harm to his own image with tweets downplaying the number of deaths provoked by the wind beast Maria.

Although the target of the defamatory leak is Trump, the shot fired across the bow claimed the Rosselló administration as collateral damage. Here’s why.

Rather than attempting to discredit the news organization that broke the Yauco story, also reported by this newspaper, the Rosselló administration could have contributed to the investigation into the event. Instead, it makes the Rosselló administration seemingly complicit in covering up the truth, as though it were a bad idea to know exactly how many people died—directly or indirectly—as a consequence of Maria (see Column).

And, perhaps nothing is further from the truth. Fresh off of positive reviews in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, a Category-5 storm that skirted the North Coast of Puerto Rico and left some 1 million people without power, perhaps the Rosselló administration wanted to put on a good face. Now, nearly a year later, those attempts to downplay the devastation have exposed our people to the denigration of attacks by Trump, who has not wasted an opportunity to claim the thousands of preventable deaths that occurred are a falsehood.

The DoD thread is one example of truths half told. We do not possess further emails on the Yauco event that shed light on the findings in the search and rescue operation. At the time, we reported there were no bodies found in the Yauco event because families had made it out safely. Perhaps.

We do not know if one person died; if several died—only the field operatives on that mission have that knowledge. The only thing we are certain of is that the truth is a casualty in the wake of Maria—thanks to a handful of Masters of Disaster.

Editor’s note: There is nothing like interviewing the past to understand the present. The special edition you have in your hands features stories reported by this newspaper—some of which garnered national attention on NBC and in the Congressional Quarterly—during the three months after Hurricane Maria savaged Puerto Rico. Others are stories or columns, exercises in introspection, with the theme of preparedness underpinning those reports. Each story is intended to find the truth about Puerto Rico’s level of preparedness as it enters the peak of the Hurricane Season. It is this newspaper’s mission to report on the Lessons Learned in the Aftermath of the Catastrophe. Look for the logo “Lessons Learned?”

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