FEMA Head Points to Politics as Reason for Slowed Response in Puerto Rico

By Christopher Flavelle | October 11, 2017

The Trump administration’s emergency management director said political infighting in Puerto Rico has slowed the pace of recovery from Hurricane Maria.

“Politics between Republicans and Democrats is bad enough – but in Puerto Rico, politics is even worse,” Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said at a briefing with reporters Monday in Washington. “When you can’t get elected officials at the local level to come to a joint field office because they disagree with the politics of the governor that’s there, it makes things difficult.”

Loíza, PR, September 21, 2017 – The community of Miñi Miñi flooded after the Carraizo Dam released water, due to the overflow brought by Hurricane Maria. The category 4 hurricane tore through Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. Yuisa Rios/FEMA

Almost three weeks after Maria struck Puerto Rico, just 15 percent of the island’s electricity customers have power, according to numbers posted on a website run by the government of Puerto Rico. Half the island lacks phone service, and about 40 percent of households lack access to potable water. Long said the main cause of the slow response lay with the political leaders on the devastated island, not with his agency, which is charged with responding to emergencies.

“I fully believe we did everything we could,” he said.

While Long didn’t mention any particular officials by name, he has previously criticized the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, as insufficiently involved in the effort. Cruz and President Donald Trump have been at odds since a week after the hurricane, with the mayor accusing Trump of not doing enough to save lives.

After acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke called the federal government’s response to Maria “a good-news story,” Cruz responded: “If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying and you are killing us with the inefficiency and the bureaucracy.”

Trump hit back on Twitter.

“Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help,” Trump tweeted Sept. 30. “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.”

Efforts to reach Cruz’s spokesman on Monday were unsuccessful. In an interview with Bloomberg last month, however, Cruz said, “I have only one goal, and it is saving lives.”

A message left with the commonwealth’s Washington office wasn’t returned. But in an interview Oct. 4, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello, who aligns with Democrats, said that he saw no point in fanning controversy in a crisis.

“After all is said and done, after all the noise is reduced, the only thing that really matters is results, outcomes and how the people of Puerto Rico end up,” said Rossello.

“It is my job that I stay focused, that I keep my team focused and that I eliminate any other narrative that might be distracting to that. I think in general that has been my MO, but certainly under these circumstances, it was pretty clear to me that we had to focus on outcomes,” he said.

Long also rejected the idea that FEMA should have sent more provisions to Puerto Rico before Maria made landfall, arguing that if the agency had delivered more food, water or fuel beforehand, the supplies could have been damaged by the storm.

“There’s only so much you can store safely,” Long said. “It’s not solely on our shoulders. It never should be.”

The FEMA chief also said it wasn’t his agency’s role or responsibility to move supplies to individual homes. “FEMA never takes commodities door to door,” Long said. And he said the answer to more frequent and severe storms wasn’t changing how FEMA operates, but getting individuals to do more to prepare for disasters.

“It’s got to be more than FEMA improving,” Long said. “If you’re relying on FEMA to come in and be the first responder, then the system’s not going to work very well.”

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