Hurricane Maria is churning through the Caribbean, delivering new devastation to islands previously hit by Hurricane Irma. (Sept. 22, 2017)
Remember Maria? Remember the scenes of catastrophic destruction when it hit? Remember accusations that the Trump Administration fiddled while Puerto Rico drowned; and that Texas and Florida got help because they're filled with white Republicans, while poor brown Puerto Ricans were ignored?
Yeah, that Maria. Since it hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, there have been so many other major news stories vying for our attention that Maria may have faded into the background. But its victims still weigh heavily on my mind, thanks to a colleague who ministers within the Hispanic community.
The Oct. 4 issue of The Atlantic featured a lengthy timeline analysis and critique of government pre-planning and post-hurricane efforts. The administration could have communicated far better with leaders on the island. Pre-positioning of personnel and supplies, as well as post-landfall efforts, were sometimes inadequate considering the sheer scope of the catastrophe.
I also read an article by Patrick Poole, in which Ricardo Rossello, the governor of Puerto Rico, rebutted some of the accusations. Additionally, I accessed the FEMA website and followed their efforts. Finally, I read updates from several nonprofit relief organizations (like Food for the Poor) with long ties to Caribbean nations.
Here are some facts about the situation. First: the island took a direct hit from a Category 5 storm. Homes, businesses and much of the already-fragile infrastructure (including 95 percent of the power grid) were severely damaged or destroyed.
Third: Puerto Rico is 1,200 miles from Miami, the closest mainland port. Initially, ships had to detour around Maria as the storm edged northwest from Puerto Rico. San Juan harbor quickly opened to a dozen ships a day. Aircraft, while valuable, couldn't transport as much as ships. They needed refueling or close-in staging centers. They either dropped heavy pallets of critical supplies, or risked landing on damaged, shorter runways outside the capital.
Fourth: Unlike the mainland Gulf Coast, Puerto Rico has surprisingly steep, heavily forested mountains. Roads to outlying towns were rendered impassable by flooding, downed trees and wires, and roadbed or bridge damage. That caused trucks to be stuck in San Juan for days, unable to bring desperately needed supplies to isolated villages.
But some updates are better. About 5,000 FEMA staff were on the island prior to landfall on Sept 20. By Sept. 25, FEMA had over 10,000 people in Puerto Rico. Army Reserve and National Guard troops flew in from all over the country. Over 2,600 were deployed within a few days of the hurricane. Logistics ships, shipping barges and a hospital ship were on the scene or en route, bringing millions of meals and bottles of water, generators, cots, diesel fuel, medical supplies and other commodities. An "air bridge" was established at St. Croix, and began flying critical supplies to Puerto Rico as soon as it was possible.
Charities with ties to Puerto Rico had personnel there before the storm hit. They emptied their warehouses, then worked together to ship supplies from multiple staging areas in Florida. As during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, they got in quickly, worked in tandem with each other and with FEMA, and will continue helping for months — or years.
Power is slowly being restored in San Juan, though it'll be months before remote villages are reconnected. Hospitals are a major priority for electricity, generators and supplies. Infrastructure — a problem even before Maria — will take months or years to address.
That lengthy timeline means new crises might shove the people of Puerto Rico onto a back burner. A spasm of pity, an outburst of indignation, and then — what? As individuals, we can't personally "solve" a problem like Maria, or the problems that made her worse. But we can do something.
Keep abreast of reliable news sources. Contact elected leaders when appropriate assistance or legislation isn't forthcoming. Donate to charities with ties to the area. Select organizations where 90-plus percent of funds goes directly to help people. This holiday season, tell family and friends why they're getting a card saying a gift was given in their honor to help rebuild lives in Puerto Rico and elsewhere.
It's not everything. It's not even enough. But it's something and it will help.