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U.S. hurricane response slower in Puerto Rico than in Florida, Texas: study

(Reuters Health) – The U.S. government’s response in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017 fell short of federal responses to other major storms that year, researchers say.

The U.S. deployed resources faster in Florida and Texas after Irma and Harvey than in Puerto Rico after Maria, their analysis found.

The “remarkable disparity in the speed and generosity of federal response . . . is probably large enough to help explain the vastly larger number of deaths” in Puerto Rico, researcher Scott Greer of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor said by email.

All three hurricanes “wreaked havoc, destroying lives and infrastructure, with lasting consequences,” Greer and colleagues write in BMJ Global Health.

But while Harvey and Irma were each linked with fewer than 150 deaths, fatalities related to Maria in Puerto Rico totaled nearly 3,000, researchers at George Washington University estimated in a 2018 study. A 2018 study by Harvard researchers put the island’s death toll even higher.

Compared to the speed with which federal workers were deployed on the mainland, federal staffing in Puerto Rico after Maria took three times as long to reach comparable levels as in Texas and 30 times as long as in Florida, Greer’s team reports.

Within two months after landfall, survivors on the mainland had received nearly $1 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Maria survivor funds did not reach $1 billion until four months after landfall, the researchers say.

Differences like these “would be unsurprising” if Maria were a weaker hurricane, Greer’s team writes. But Harvey and Irma hit the mainland as category 4 storms, and Maria hit Puerto Rico “just below the threshold of a category 5.”

Greer’s team analyzed data from FEMA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, congressional appropriations records, vital statistics offices and news articles. They say FEMA did not report data consistently and did not respond to data requests.

“It is very important to be willing to take a hard look” at these data, Dr. Lynn Goldman, senior author on last year’s George Washington University study, told Reuters Health by phone. Goldman was not involved in the current study.

The emergency response in Puerto Rico became highly politicized as the Trump administration was castigated as being slow to recognize the extent of the devastation and provide disaster relief to the island territory. The administration argued that delays in Puerto Rico were due to geographic limitations, Greer and colleagues note.

Greer’s team, however, believes the slower distribution of aid in Puerto Rico is more likely explained by congressional negotiations seeking to prove the territory had insufficient assets and required financial assistance.

Greer said elected officials who pushed hardest for Puerto Rico were from states with large Puerto Rican populations, regardless of party. He believes the disaster response on the island would have been different if the territory had its own voting representatives in the U.S. Congress.

A FEMA spokesperson responded, “the insinuation that federal response (to Maria) was ‘slower’ is absurd,” in an emailed statement.

“FEMA’s response efforts in Puerto Rico is the largest and longest commodity delivery mission in the agency’s history,” the spokesperson said. “There were real challenges in Puerto Rico that had to be overcome – including aging infrastructure, a decayed power grid and liquidity issues . . . FEMA remains on the island to this day, ensuring that the people of Puerto Rico are able to emerge from the crisis more resilient than ever.”

SOURCE: BMJ Global Health, online January 18, 2019.

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