Lessons from FEMA

Last year produced the most destructive hurricane season on record, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency now admits it blew the response. In a mea culpa report released last week, agency officials concede they badly underestimated and were ill-prepared for the Atlantic storm season that extensively damaged Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The tally from Puerto Rico alone — at least 64 lives lost (the unofficial estimate is closer to 1,000) and economic damages in the neighborhood of $100 billion in the wake of Hurricane Maria — followed by FEMA’s lackluster response and the Trump administration’s seeming indifference to the island’s plight remain a sore spot for many Americans, particularly those with ties to the island.

That raises at least two questions. First, is FEMA ready for the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season, which forecasters have already predicted will be worse than normal? But secondly, will President Donald Trump acknowledge the federal government’s responsibility to Puerto Rico and the struggles the island continues to weather 10 months later? And that’s not just a reference to President Trump’s paper-tossing episode during which he cavalierly threw rolls of towels into a crowd during a brief, post-Maria visit even as many rural islanders were struggling without power, food, drinking water or access to medical care.

Shades of that indifference — if not outright hostility — continue to pop up, including, most recently, in a viral video of a 62-year-old Des Plaines, Ill., man berating a woman wearing a Puerto Rican flag -shirt in a Chicago park and yelling loudly at her that she should not be wearing that “in the United States” while a nearby Cook County Forest Preserve District police officer ignores the harassment despite the victim’s calls for help. The man, Timothy Trybus, has been charged with two counts of felony hate crimes as well as assault and disorderly conduct while the officer, Patrick Connor, has resigned. For the record, Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, which makes island residents U.S. citizens.

Yet just weeks after Maria struck last September, President Trump was on Twitter posting comments that suggested he sees Puerto Ricans as lazy slobs, tweeting last October that “they want everything done for them” and that FEMA workers were doing a “fantastic job” even as San Juan’s mayor warned that islanders were dying. Even FEMA acknowledges it didn’t do a “fantastic job” and can point to the soaring death rate during that period to prove it. Will Mr. Trump also admit the error? That’s unlikely but no less important. The president’s antipathy toward Puerto Ricans — or perhaps Latinos generally given his often-racially tinged pronouncements on Mexicans, Central Americans and other immigrants — might well have played a role in what happened in Chicago.

Meanwhile, it’s also fair to wonder whether FEMA’s failure to adequately prepare for hurricane season might be connected to the Trump administration’s choice to reject climate change science and the findings of its own federal agencies that have long predicted worsening storms. Scientists worry that storms of all types will become more intense and coastal communities more vulnerable as greenhouse gas levels increase and sea levels rise. This is particularly worrisome for states like Maryland where hundreds of thousands of people live near the water’s edge from Ocean City to Annapolis to Fells Point. Last year, Hurricane Harvey produced “unprecedented levels of precipitation” when it hit South Texas in late August of last year, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, which points out that a “once in a 100-year storm” may now be more like a once in 16-year storm.

Hurricane season officially began last month, but Marylanders would be wise to prepare now for the peak of the season, usually August and September. That means having a basic disaster supply kit (food, water, flashlight, batteries, etc.) as well as a family emergency plan. A good description of these and other preparations can be found at the National Hurricane Center. Will FEMA be better prepared for what’s coming? Probably not. There are already indicators that the agency is entering the season short-staffed. And given how modest the political fallout has been for its botched Puerto Rican response to date (compared to the impact FEMA’s mishandling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 had on President George W. Bush who watched public confidence in him plummet in his second term), it’s hard to believe that it’s much of a priority for either the White House or top leaders in Congress.

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