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FEMA is ‘better prepared’ in Puerto Rico, official says

By on September 19, 2019

FEMA Acting Federal Disaster Coordinator Nick Russo during an interview with Caribbean Business regarding the recovery efforts as the two-year mark for Hurricane Maria approaches, in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, Sept. 16, 2019. (Eliezer Hernández/FEMA)

Acting federal coordinator assures being ready to respond to anything but another hurricane like Maria

SAN JUAN — In an acknowledgment of its slow response to Hurricane Maria’s catastrophic strike on Puerto Rico two years ago, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) has built up its infrastructure locally and is better prepared to assist islanders in the event of future destructive storms, said the agency’s acting federal coordinating officer and acting director of the Caribbean office, James N. Russo.

“The decision was made that we need to be much more prepared on the island, for our own sustainability,” Russo said in an interview with Caribbean Business at local FEMA headquarters in Guaynabo. “Depending on the size and scope of the event, no one is ever prepared for a hurricane like Maria. It’s a Category 5 and all you can do is sit back and hopefully everyone stays safe. But for everything else, we are better prepared.”

The federal agency currently has 3,000 employees on the island who are assessing more than 50,000 hurricane-damaged sites to determine eligibility and funding for reconstruction and mitigation projects. Commonwealth agencies, municipalities and nonprofits have submitted more than $25 billion in infrastructure rebuilding estimates to FEMA so far.

FEMA was heavily criticized for its slow response in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria two years ago, but Russo said the agency has “learned its lessons” and has responded accordingly to avoid a repeat of the mistakes made in the wake of the catastrophic strike of Maria on Sept. 20, 2017, which left hundreds of thousands of families deprived of food, water and electric power service and did not see aid for weeks.

In fact, Russo said he arrived in April as the predesignated federal coordinating officer for the hurricane season—which began June 1—noting it is the first time FEMA sends such an official to a location at the start of the season. These officials usually arrive at their predesignated locations when a storm strike is imminent, he said.

Stressing that he arrived ahead of time and “will be here for the entire hurricane season,” Russo said, “I think that shows the lessons learned. This has given me much more time to meet with the governor and her staff, and the [Puerto Rico Emergency Management Bureau (PREMB)] and its staff, and get to know the island and get to know the people.”

Adding that he has also become familiar with the FEMA staff on the island, the official assured: “This makes us far more effective.”

Russo said FEMA has also built up its logistics on the island, noting that it now has five warehouses, in contrast to only one before Hurricane Maria struck.

“We have, in some cases, up to 10 times the amount of commodities on the island today than we had pre-Maria,” he said. “The ground is much better prepared this time. A valuable lesson we learned was that it takes a long time to get supplies here from the mainland. In Maria, it was the largest sea, land and air operation that FEMA has ever done. It was the largest logistics mission. We moved more commodities than ever in our history. There are a lot of lessons learned in terms of how long it takes to actually respond to the island from the mainland.”

Russo said that in his observations and talks with local officials, he considers the island is “far better prepared” in terms of generators and stocked food, water, blankets and infant kits, the “things you need immediately after the storm.”

“During the summer, we built capacity with local agencies, creating national response teams,” he said, noting that stateside national response team officials trained PREMB officials at the end of July and the beginning of August. “They went through three weeks of really intense training to make sure we are both talking about the same things.”

Russo said the interaction between federal and local emergency response officials sought to ensure seamless communication between them during an emergency—something that was largely missing in the wake of the 2017 hurricanes.

The official acknowledged that the island’s actual hurricane preparedness has yet to be tested. On Aug. 28, Tropical Storm Dorian was forecast to make landfall in Puerto Rico, but ended up missing the island entirely. 

Russo acknowledged that Puerto Rico’s electrical grid is still vulnerable, particularly its distribution system of power lines that reach homes, businesses and hospitals. Although the initial government death toll as a direct consequence of Hurricane Maria was of 64 people, subsequent studies by Harvard and Georgetown universities concluded there could have been as many as 4,000 preventable deaths. Most of these were attributed to the months-long blackout after the storm destroyed the island’s high-voltage transmission line towers.

“What would it take to have a large outage? It could be something as small as Dorian or something very large. The system has not been tested,” he said, noting, however, that “in terms of the generators on the island and the work that has been done by Prepa [Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority] to this point—and there is much more work that has to be done, obviously—the system is in better shape. But for me to give you an estimate of what would happen, that would be impossible, it would depend on the storm.”

“Hurricane María in Puerto Rico has been one of the most challenging missions in FEMA’s 40-year history. With proven processes in place and thousands of permanent work sites inspected, the island is now on its way to meeting its long-term recovery goals,” Russo said in a FEMA release last week.

To date, the federal government has spent more than $20 billion on response and recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, according to FEMA, which says its public assistance program has reimbursed $5.8 billion to the commonwealth for expenses related to hurricanes Irma and María.

More than $1.3 billion has been approved to assist hurricane victims during their recovery process under FEMA’s individuals and households program, which includes temporary rental assistance, funds to repair or replace damaged homes and other immediate needs after the storm. Survivors also received about $2 billion in low-interest disaster loans from the Small Business Administration to help with their recovery, FEMA said in its release.

“Given the scope of hurricane-related damage in Puerto Rico, a significant amount of Public Assistance funds was used for measures to save lives, ensure public health and to remove over 11 million cubic yards of debris – enough to fill Yankee Stadium 23 times over,” the release added.

Editor’s note: See a FEMA funding report on page 6 of the Sept. 19 issue of Caribbean Business.

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