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Study: Feds Response to Hurricane Maria Slower, Less Generous Than Responses to Texas and Florida Storms

Climate
A woman and child at a memorial of shoes displayed in front of the Puerto Rican capital in honor of those who died in Hurricane Maria. RICARDO ARDUENGO / AFP / Getty Images

Since the death toll in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria was officially raised to 2,975, it has been acknowledged as one of the deadliest disasters in U.S. history, and the deadliest hurricane in more than 100 years. But many have argued it didn't have to be that way, pointing to a less-than-adequate response from the federal government.


Now, a study led by members of the University of Michigan (UM) School of Public Health and published in the British Medical Journal Global Health Friday added fuel to those suspicions by comparing the government's response to Hurricanes Irma and Harvey in Florida and Texas the same year, and finding its actions in Puerto Rico both slower and less financially generous.

"What we found is that there was a very significant difference in not only the timing of the responses but also in the volume of resources distributed in terms of money and staffing," lead author and UM School of Public Health doctoral candidate Charley Willison said in a press release. "Overall, Hurricane Maria had a delayed and lower response across those measures compared to hurricanes Harvey and Irma. It raises concern for growth in health disparities as well as potential increases in adverse health outcomes."

The researchers compared disaster responses following the three hurricanes, accounting for the need of the survivors and the severity of the storm. They relied on Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data, as well as congressional and media reports.

"The analysis shows that the disaster response to the three hurricanes did not align with storm severity and may affect deaths and recovery rates," Willison said.

Here are some examples of the disparities researchers discovered.

1. Within nine days of the storms' landfall, Hurricane Irma and Harvey survivors had received nearly $100 million from FEMA, while Hurricane Maria survivors had received little more than $6 million.

2. Federal on-site workers peaked at 31,000 in Texas following Harvey, 40,000 in Florida following Irma and only 19,000 in Puerto Rico following Maria.

3. Texas and Florida received in two months the aid that Puerto Rico had to wait four months to get in full.

The Puerto Rican government held up the report as proof of President Donald Trump's poor response to the disaster and as an example of long-standing inequalities between Puerto Rico and the mainland U.S.

"The study released today is further evidence that the federal government dragged its feet during the biggest disaster in our recorded history, which took the lives of almost 3,000 citizens," Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration Executive Director Carlos Mercader wrote in a statement to CBS News. "We can only hope that the mounting evidence serves to improve the federal government's response during the next natural disaster. Nevertheless, as long as we remain a mere territory without any say in our government, we will always get the short end of the stick in our fundamentally imperfect relationship with the United States."

The researchers also raised the issue of political representation.

"Not only was the lack of emergency response a likely contributor to thousands of avoidable deaths, it was also a reminder of the penalties of not being fully represented in federal politics," study co-author and UM health management and policy professor Scott Greer said in the UM release. "Democracy is a public health policy."

FEMA, however, defended its response to the storm, saying it had faced unique difficulties in delivering aid to Puerto Rico.

"An ideal response to any disaster is one that is federally supported, state managed and locally executed. FEMA's ability to provide support in disasters builds on, and is subject to, the capacity of the state, territorial, tribal & local governments," FEMA press secretary Elizabeth Litzow wrote in a statement to CBS News. "There were real challenges in Puerto Rico that had to be overcome—including aging infrastructure, a decayed power grid and liquidity issues."

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The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.

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The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

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Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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