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Political Science and Public Administration

Dr. Daniel G. Barbee has worked in emergency management and disaster planning for over 3 decades. His work and accomplishments in the field include authoring procedures for FEMA as well as working with state and municipal governments around the country to implement plans that will prevent tragedy in the wake of a natural disaster.

Maria recently struck Puerto Rico as a Category 4 hurricane. Two weeks later, more than half of the 3.4 million residents still have no access to fresh water and more than 90% have no electricity. Governor Rosselló has stated that it will likely be months before the island is fully operational again, and rebuilding & recovery estimates are in the tens of billions.

I discussed with Dr. Barbee some of the factors contributing to the severity of this disaster – why recovery efforts are expected to take so long, why the official death toll underestimates the impact of the storm, what challenges Puerto Rico will face in trying to prevent future disasters of this scale, and more. What follows is a summary of our conversation.

The first point of discussion was why the island territory was so badly affected and why relief was taking so long to arrive. Dr. Barbee touched on a few main points. “First of all, the infrastructure was and is badly outdated in many areas,” he said. Puerto Rico has been in mounting levels of debt for “decades”, and infrastructure spending often gets pushed off. That’s one reason why structural damage was so significant even though the immediate loss of life was comparatively low. Additionally, the professor noted, Puerto Rico has a high coastline-to-landmass ratio. “Maria was much worse than [Harvey and Irma were for the mainland] in part because… there was a lot of building along the coast.” Many of the island’s residents lived within the area affected by the storm surge, which led to widespread flooding and structural collapse.

As for why relief is taking so long, Dr. Barbee noted that he didn’t think it was “political” or from a lack of empathy. “FEMA is still cleaning up after the last two disasters,” and volunteers are “tired and spread thin.” Another topic discussed was the Jones Act, a nearly-100-year-old piece of legislation that prevents shipment between U.S. ports by foreign vessels. It took more than two days of deliberation after Hurricane Maria had subsided for the act to be temporarily waived to allow for shipments of oil and other crucial supplies to the territory. Aside from that, Puerto Rico is “obviously an island… that can only be accessed by boat or by air, and the airports really aren’t in good shape right now. So it’s harder to get supplies [than it would be on the mainland].” In addition, prior to hurricanes Harvey and Irma, many residents were evacuated and disaster relief was already waiting immediately outside the projected path of the storm; these types of measures weren’t able to be taken prior to Maria.

Another item discussed was the comparatively low death toll for Maria when viewed in the context of other disasters. Dr. Barbee cautions that these numbers are likely to climb in the coming weeks as more deaths are reported and lack of power, water, and medicine takes its toll. “The first priority after a disaster should be getting everyone out [of unsafe situations] and getting them what they need,” but the collapse of all communication systems across the island has made it difficult for rescue workers to identify the communities most heavily impacted and the residents most in need of help. The professor noted that it’ll be a long time before everything gets back to normal, but once the immediate danger has passed, Puerto Rico needs serious help “to rebuild infrastructure in a way that will prevent a disaster on this scale again.”

Regardless of what ends up being the priority, it’s undeniable that – like Texas and Florida – Puerto Rico will need help getting back on its feet. If you’d like to help, consider donating to a disaster-relief charity such as “Save the Children.”

-by Jacob Newton