Two weeks into the 2018 hurricane season, the island of Puerto Rico is still in deep recovery mode from Hurricane Maria, which struck in September 2017. From updated information on the actual number of storm-related fatalities, to continued problems with the power grid, to a new report on the Federal Emergency Response Agency’s (FEMA) failed response, it remains clear that the island is extremely vulnerable in the face of future storms.
After Hurricane Maria made landfall on September 20, the official death count in Puerto Rico was 64. But, as Colorlines previously reported, according to a May study from Harvard University researchers, at least 4,645 people died. On Tuesday (June 12), the government, in response to a court order, began releasing data on deaths from the storm. Per NPR:
The data reveal that there were 1,427 more deaths in the last four months of 2017 than the average over the four years before. The new count comes as questions swirl around the official death toll and reports that hundreds of bodies remain unclaimed in the island’s main morgue.
The death count was not the only controversy related to the storm. There were numerous allegations that FEMA’s response was lacking. Today (June 14), NPR released the findings of an investigation it conducted in conjunction with PBS series Frontline. The media outlets scoured hundreds of pages of internal documents and emails to assess FEMA’s response.
“Rather than a well-orchestrated effort, [these documents] paint a picture of a relief agency in chaos, struggling with key contracts, basic supplies and even its own workforce,” reports NPR. For example, while FEMA claimed it had 500 generators on the island before Maria hit, in truth, there were just 25 generators in place. In addition, there were insufficient numbers of plastic roofs and tarps for island residents.
In response, FEMA officials say they were not to blame for these findings. “If there’s a villain here, it’s the 190 mph winds and the 50 inches of rain,” FEMA’s federal coordinating officer for Maria, Michael Byrne, told NPR. “That’s the villain. That’s what did the damage to the people. We’ve done nothing but try to remedy that.”
The federal government was also criticized for its response to electrical grid failures. The island experienced a complete power loss during the storm, making it the largest American blackout ever. Now, nearly nine months later, Vox reports that the grid is in worse condition than it was before Maria. Per Vox:
Hurricane season is back, and the power grid still hasn’t returned to status quo ante. In fact, it remains weaker than before, as temporary generators and stopgap repairs hold it together. There have been some efforts to build microgrids, localized electrical networks that bypass the main grid, but the power recovery effort has been marred by missteps like hiring overpriced contractors.
The island’s water infrastructure is similarly vulnerable. “Puerto Rico had the worst rate of drinking water quality violations of any state or territory in the United States even before Maria,” reports Vox. “The lack of power stressed an already dangerous water system.”