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How the US turned Hurricane Maria from a natural disaster to a man-made catastrophe

Posted at 7:17 AM, Sep 21, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-21 11:40:28-04

One year ago, Maria came to Puerto Rico like a chainsaw in the sky, one hundred miles wide.

On the island, The Maria Generation will remember it as 9/20, a vivid example that few things test a society’s values like a massive disaster.

While earthquakes and volcanoes give no warning, a hurricane can be a slow-motion stress test of national strength, smarts and cohesion.

When the winds die and the clouds part, failure to prepare or respond becomes impossible to ignore. How a country counts its dead and measures its losses will shape the way it braces for the next big, bad day.

As proof of the chaos that followed Maria, the governor’s official body count jumped more than 4,500% in a single day, from 64 to 2,975. I met dozens on the island who believe that number is too low, even as President Trump tweeted his conspiracy theory that it is too high, inflated by political enemies to make him look bad.

“There is something evil in him,” Diana Aponte said when I read her the tweet. “People are still dying as a consequence of Maria. How could he doubt it? He’s heartless. He’s worthless.”

Laid low by the stress of the storm, lack of medicine and generator fumes, Diana’s husband, Miguel, died on their 50th wedding anniversary, two months after the storm. She shrugs when I ask if he should be counted as a storm fatality and says she rejected FEMA’s offer to pay for Miguel’s casket. For her, the bigger issues are respect for the dead and lessons learned.

So in honor of Miguel and all those victims whose names we may never know, here is how human nature supercharged the destruction of Mother Nature in Puerto Rico.

Food and water

On a good day, you can drive the width of Puerto Rico in under three hours.

After Maria brought down countless power poles and hillsides, it could take three days.

See Puerto Rico then and now

With over 3 million people running out of food and water, the shattered island desperately needed air support. The Feds would eventually fly a record 5,373 sorties, but many towns furthest from San Juan didn’t see help for weeks.

As a point of comparison, the United States had 22,000 troops, more than 30 ships and some 300 helicopters on the island of Haiti, two weeks after the 2010 earthquake.

But when I landed at an abandoned airport in Mayaguez one month after Maria, the National Guard was just beginning to arrive, while a handful of volunteer combat vets from the mainland had already fed and watered thousands after flying down on their own dime.

“I think we’re up to 30,000 meals, 35,000 meals,” a weary Eric Carlson told me in baggage claim-turned-bunkhouse. “And that just with the small trucks we have, and by hook and by crook getting supplies.”

While Carlson was calling for more manpower, Justo Hernandez, FEMA’s second in command in Puerto Rico, said that he was set. “I have 17,000 people on the island,” he told me. An internal FEMA investigation would later reveal that after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit the mainland, more than half of these people were “bottom of the barrel” — untrained, unqualified and many not bilingual.

“I don’t know how much more we can bring in without actually impacting the economy of Puerto Rico,” Hernandez said at the one-month mark. “If I keep on flooding the place with food and water, when is it that the local neighbors are going to open their supermarket?”

But in the months that followed, FEMA would flood Puerto Rico with supplies, and the proof can now be found sitting on a runway in Ceiba. We found more than 20,000 pallets, holding millions of bottles of fresh water, going to waste in the sun for months.

After initially blaming local officials for failing to distribute it, Hernandez admits they simply shipped too much, too late.

“We are investigating how we got to this stage,” he told me. “Because that’s a big lesson learned for us.”

Power

Native Puerto Ricans — the hearty “Boricuas” — are used to blackouts.

While American power stations and transmission lines are usually updated every decade, Puerto Rico’s power grid had been neglected for decades before Maria tore it to pieces.

With $9 billion in debt, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) was often derided as a symbol of mismanagement, and the storm did little to change that perception.

Before seeking so-called “mutual aid” contracts with mainland power companies, PREPA chief Ricardo Ramos struck a $300 million deal with an obscure outfit from Montana called Whitefish Energy.

The two-year-old company had only two listed employees, but they had a barge full of journeymen, linemen and equipment impossible to find after Harvey and Irma — and more importantly, Ramos says, they didn’t ask the bankrupt utility for any payment up front.

When word got out that the last-minute deal would pay many times the going rate for men and equipment, a public outcry led to the firing of Whitefish and the resignation of Ramos, while the job of rebuilding the grid went to the Army Corps of Engineers. “It’s not something we even planned on doing in any kind of disaster,” said chief engineer Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite. “We don’t do grid repair.”

Before leaving the island, the fired Whitefish Energy crews managed to repair five transmission lines faster and cheaper than other contractors, PREPA records show, and were given a “favorable review” by FEMA’s Inspector General and PREPA’s new chief, José Ortiz.

“I don’t think we were prepared,” Ortiz said. “We didn’t realize we needed to have inventory and manufacturers identified for a major catastrophe like this. There was a lot of mismanagement.”

Ortiz says that when the next storm hits, he has mutual aid contracts with 32 contractors already in place.

Shelter

When Maria hit, there wasn’t a single cot or tarp in FEMA warehouses. They’d all been sent to the Virgin Islands in response to Hurricane Irma.

“Operation Blue Roof” was supposed to fill some of that gap and provide the one thing most people needed after food and water: shelter from a wet tropical sky.

FEMA distributed nearly 170,000 tarps for self-installation, but in the first three months after the storm, 70,000 people signed up to have a sturdy tarp installed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

A CNN investigation revealed that just before Christmas — three months after the storm — two-thirds of those requests went unfulfilled while 60,000 tarps were sitting in warehouses.

The mission manager blamed difficult working conditions and unsafe structures while, in November, FEMA fired a Florida company called Bronze Star, which had been hired to deliver tarps to the island. “Formed by two brothers in August, Bronze Star had never before won a government contract or delivered tarps or plastic sheeting,” the Associated Press reported.

Flying over the island today, the blue tarps can be seen everywhere. What are supposed to be temporary fixes are now tattered and fading in the sun as the island struggles to rebuild.

Harder to see is the emotional toll brought by approaching storms under broken roofs.

A survey of over 60,000 public school kids recently found that nearly half had seen their homes destroyed or greatly damaged, and the rate of depression is twice as high as normal.

How it all adds up

After CNN sued the Puerto Rico Department of Health to see a mortality database, we could see in black and white how the months-long lack of clean water, shelter and power created a slow motion disaster that only added to the body count.

After months of broken water mains and powerless pumps, there was an outbreak of deadly leptospirosis, caused by drinking water tainted with animal waste.

Doctors were forced to operate in dark, hot, unsterile hospitals. For some relying on breathing machines or dialysis, running out of generator gas meant the difference between life or death — which is why the scientists at George Washington University said the old and poor make up the brunt of the 2,975 excess deaths in the six months after the storm.

“Any time FEMA is the first responder and the primary responder like we were in Puerto Rico, it’s never an ideal situation,” FEMA head Brock Long told me in November. “But I do believe that we kept that island from complete and total collapse.”

Local officials from Vieques to Utuado bristled when I shared his quote. If you want a lesson in self-sufficiency, come to Puerto Rico, they say. Because over a century after becoming property of the United States, they have no choice but to scrape by — a Caribbean colony, paying taxes without representation in Congress and voting only for presidential primaries.

A FEMA report reviewed by PBS Frontline shows that nine days after their respective storms, Texas and Florida had received twice as much water and four times the food and tarps as Puerto Rico.

“In terms of the response, in terms of the unnecessary bureaucracy, in terms of the lack of urgency, for example, of the Corps of Engineers, it is likely that being an American territory and being second class citizens is playing a huge role,” Gov. Ricardo Rosselló told me. Like his father, a two-term governor of Puerto Rico, Rosselló is among the long line of leaders who argue the island deserves statehood.

Impact Your World: How to help Puerto Rico

Over the last century, Puerto Ricans died in American wars, played on American ballfields and stages, and made an awful lot of American medicine.

Do they need their own star on the flag to be treated like Texas or Florida?