Residents of Hampton Roads should pay close attention as federal officials swarm to Puerto Rico in the wake of yet another devastating hurricane. Listen to the promises from Washington; keep an eye on how relief efforts unfold.
Every storm-threatened region should do the same, knowing that soon they may also need a better prepared, more effective federal response in the wake of a similar catastrophe than what has been the norm in recent years.
The problems are plentiful and the criticism eminently justified. But with more frequent and more destructive disasters expected in an era of climate change, those who manage recovery must pivot from a focus solely on restoration to bolstering resilience as well.
Fiona brushed by the island over the weekend as a Category 1 hurricane, bringing relatively moderate winds. But the system dumped unprecedented rainfall across Puerto Rico — as much as 30 inches of rain in some places.
The result, predictably, was widespread and calamitous flooding. The death toll rose to eight people, as of Thursday, and at least 1,000 people were plucked from the waters or from the resulting mudslides. The entire island lost power and critical infrastructure was severely impaired or irreparably harmed.
Fiona was not as powerful as Hurricane Maria, which struck the island five years ago as a Category 5 storm, but Puerto Rico was still suffering the effects of that 2017 storm and the inept, costly response which followed.
Maria was the worst possible scenario: a powerful hurricane striking a place with rickety, vulnerable infrastructure in the wake of several other costly storm disasters. In an after-action report published in 2018, the Federal Emergency Management Agency cited logistic, organizational and operational failures that contributed to prolonged hardship and a loss of life.
That report also pledged better from that agency, arguing that federal emergency response must be proactive in preparing communities for disaster, bolstering resilience efforts and streamlining relief efforts to serve victims more quickly and efficiently.
FEMA officials and emergency management experts have been preaching those reforms for years, without much success or substantive results. A hurricane knocks things down and FEMA does its best to put them back up again. Another storm hits and the process repeats.
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Yet, in these moments of crisis, the rebuilding effort should be shaped by how best to build for the future as well. Tending to the humanitarian crisis is always job one, but reconstruction efforts should be organized around how to prevent another storm from inflicting similar (or worse) harm.
Better yet would be to prepare communities for the eventuality of disaster. (Hampton Roads, take note.)
After Hurricane Sandy inundated New York City and much of the East Coast in 2012, Henk Ovink, a special envoy to the United Nations and a senior advisor to the presidential task force on rebuilding after that storm, told 60 Minutes that the United States needs to rethink its approach to disaster recovery.
“There’s only one opportunity. That is when a disaster hits,” Ovink said. “It’s like an X-ray. It tells you where all your vulnerabilities are and gives you the opportunity to step up and say, ‘We can do better.’”
Maybe this time things really will be better for the people of Puerto Rico. Perhaps this time, Washington will show its commitment to the people there and provide them the resources and relief needed to build a stronger, more resilient island.
But Puerto Ricans have experienced too many storms, seen too much destruction and endured too much anguish — followed by so many empty promises — to hold their breath. They need their fellow Americans — including Hampton Roads, with its recurrent flooding and billions in resilience needs — to be their advocates and demand better.
To help the people of Puerto Rico, please consider a donation to the Fundación Comunitaria de Puerto Rico (The Puerto Rico Community Foundation), which has a 100% rating from Charity Navigator, at fcpr.org.