The wreckage of Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricanes Maria and Irma teaches us that there is no such thing as a “natural disaster.” This trope drives the federal response to environmental traumas under the Stafford Act, which allows the U.S. president to direct funds to any “state,” including Puerto Rico, when it is felled by events such as hurricanes.
The failures of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), show the illusions of the “disaster” story: It characterizes environmental traumas as short-term, one-size-fits-all catastrophes that are nobody’s fault. It also positions the federal government as a savior of victims, who should be thankful for U.S. aid that is given a matter of largesse. For this reason, President Trump could make the now-infamous complaint that “they” “want everything done for them” via Twitter on Sept. 30, and on Nov. 17 request that Congress provide only $44 billion in aid, a number that Senator Patrick Leahy (D, Vt) describes as “insulting,” especially for Puerto Rico.
Reliance on the story may also explain why the colorful FEMA “timeline” describing U.S. aid appears to stop at Oct. 31 as of this writing, and contains perfunctory assessments of efficient debris-clearance.
Interviews with Puerto Rican residents and responders that I conducted in November, however, reveal a different tale — one where FEMA administrators misunderstood the real dimensions of environmental “disasters,” which may begin far before the event, unfold in highly site-specific ways, and can continue for decades if not longer.
Puertorriqueños found themselves vulnerable for reasons that far predate Maria’s September 20 landfall. As law professor María L. Jiménez Colón, director of legal clinics for the University of Puerto Rico, recently explained to me: What we’re seeing now is “probably the worst, the most graphic, consequences of what happens when you are in a situation as we are, and as we were, before the hurricane.” In recounting the causes of the island’s suffering, she lambasted Puerto Rico’s “colony” status as well as its financial crisis, which may illuminate why its insufficiently maintained electrical grid failed, leaving 95 percent of the territory without power.
Moreover, the dangers foretold by austerity were compounded by FEMA’s negligence post-Maria. Professor Jiménez Colón reported that “We haven’t encountered many FEMA inspectors who speak Spanish.”
This complaint was also echoed by Roxanna García, RN, who did aid work in Puerto Rico from Oct. 4-18 with RNRN/NNU, the relief arm of her union: She said to me: “A lot of them didn’t speak Spanish, and the only thing they were doing was taking applications.”
Along with sending monolingual English speakers to help a territory where approximately 2.8 million people are monolingual Spanish speakers, García complained that FEMA relied on inaccessible technology: “You could fill out applications in person, but (to) follow up the application, (that process) was electronic. (You had to use a) phone, or text, or email. … But the internet was spotty and unreliable.”
And when FEMA handed out supplies, she said, it ignored victims’ health conditions : Residents “didn’t receive the kind of food that was adequate” in either quality or quantity, particularly considering the size of households or the prevalence of diabetes in Puerto Rico. The FEMA relief boxes contained a paltry amount of “chips and beef jerky and maybe a couple of bottles of water,” which often couldn’t be eaten since around 40 percent of the people García aided had diabetes or high blood pressure.
Private responders also said FEMA workers could barely be found. Sophia Hau Yau RN, who also traveled with RNRN/NNU, said that aid workers posted a sheet in a common area titled “FEMA Sightings.” Only six people wrote in of seeing FEMA employees, whereas Yau worked with a group of 300 volunteers that entered remote mountain locations and rural areas.
The disaster narrative also does not adequately imagine the future created for Puerto Rico by colonialism, austerity, Maria and government carelessness: “You can see the health crisis starting and already growing,” Yau said, citing the long-term effects of black mold and tainted water. And Jiménez observed that the hurricane would catalyze “housing (problems), foreclosures and evictions, and with evictions you trigger family relations, with issues with child custodies, and so on and so forth. This ... (is not going to) end soon.”
As Puerto Rico residents and responders know, FEMA does not attend to victims of unpredictable “natural disasters” out of generosity. Instead, human-rights considerations obligate the government to respond fully to environmental events that are rooted in government responsibility. Conscious of its own role in creating “disasters,” the U.S. must also tailor aid to local conditions, and to respond to an injured community with an appreciation of its history and foreseeable future.