Lessons Learned: Puerto Rico and Maria

By Nathan Barton

When I first received this, I didn’t know where it was originally published. I got it from a correspondent who strongly supports local emergency preparedness AND is also a strong advocate of government.  I finally found it via DuckDuckGo at the Wall Street Journal, of all places!  Again, a surprise based on what it contains.  Giving full credit to the WSJ, here it is, with what I consider key points highlighted by me.

Headline: The emergency plan depended on generators but diesel was not delivered.

Oct. 1, 2017 4:23 p.m. ET

Hurricane Katrina taught the Federal Emergency Management Agency some harsh lessons in 2005. FEMA used what it learned to prepare and respond better when Harvey and Irma hit the U.S. mainland earlier this year. Now Maria has taken the bureaucrats back to school in Puerto Rico, and they’re not getting passing grades.

Ahead of the Category 4 storm that hit with 155 mile-an-hour winds on Sept. 20, the FEMA team in Puerto Rico said it was ready. But a week later much of the island was still in dire need of food, water and fuel—the basics of humanitarian relief.

The most immediate needs centered on the sick and elderly. About 97% of the island lost electricity in the storm. Diesel-run generators were supposed to fill the void in hospitals and dialysis centers and provide refrigeration for medicines like insulin. But the diesel fuel did not arrive, and by midweek family members began to panic. Tearful Puerto Ricans begged for help.

FEMA will no doubt learn again from Maria. But so too should the rest of us, about the folly of relying on government to deal with a disaster even as predictable as the aftermath of a hurricane.

Yet the failures in Puerto Rico have not been due to a lack of federal attention. Rather the local FEMA team failed to execute fundamental aspects of emergency operations. Whether that’s because it was overwhelmed by the widespread devastation or because of bureaucratic incompetence can be debated.

Mr. Trump’s big mistake has been his handling of the Jones Act, which mandates that shipping from the mainland to the island use only American-built-and-crewed vessels. First he said he would not suspend it as he did for Texas after Harvey and Florida after Irma. “A lot of people that work in the shipping industry . . . don’t want [it] lifted,” he said. Well, duh. A lot of people don’t like competition. But that’s hardly a good argument for blocking it.

Under pressure, he finally said he would suspend the Jones Act for Puerto Rico—but only for 10 days, a meaningless gesture.

For more than a week the island’s ports have been piled high with containers waiting to be hitched up to cabs and their contents delivered to supermarkets, restaurants, home-building supply stores and medical centers. In other words, much of the merchandise needed in an islandwide triage is already on Puerto Rican docks.

What the island does not yet have but will have to import in the months and years ahead are billions of dollars in materials for rebuilding homes, businesses and infrastructure. This will be heavily subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, who, along with Puerto Ricans, have a right to demand globally competitive shipping rates.

If the president and Congress are serious about their concern for the territory, they will stand up to the shipping lobby and end once and for all what has been an injustice to Puerto Rico for nearly 100 years.

Meanwhile, the Boricua are slowly recovering from what can only be described as a giant FEMA fubar. True, an island tyrannized by labor unions some 1,200 miles from Florida with an annual per capita income of $29,000—and a bankrupt state-owned electricity monopoly—presents special challenges.

Yet this was common knowledge before Maria landed. So too was the high probability that cellphone service would be extremely limited in the wake of the storm. Nevertheless FEMA was caught off guard.

The emergency plan centered on the use of diesel generators to replace lost electricity for hospitals and to pump drinking water. But a week after the storm 44% of the island was still without agua potable and public-health services were deteriorating.

Amid the chaos, Alejandro de la Campa, the local head of FEMA, tried to explain away the agency’s responsibility. “We have no control over diesel in Puerto Rico,” he said. “We have contracts with certain companies that are giving us service.”

Right. And the fire department has no control over water.

The troubles went beyond diesel and turned into a supply-chain nightmare in which chaos reigned. Gasoline lines stretched miles. Merchandise at the port couldn’t be delivered due to driver shortages and the collapse of the communications infrastructure.

Emergency management is all about anticipating disruptions and establishing contingencies. The failure of the local FEMA office to do so is organizational negligence, not a mainland plot against our Spanish-speaking brethren.

End of the WSJ Article

My own thoughts: Such things as electrical monopolies and control of ports are socialist and not something that should be tolerated in a supposedly free nation. The response of the commonwealth government (and FEMA) just added injury to insult.

The Jones Act is an affront to free trade and free movement of people, goods, and services. It belongs back in the 19th Century, and should have been ended a long time ago (or never passed) and these waivers are too little, too late.

We can complain all we want about bureaucratic incompetence and organizational negligence, but we cannot ignore the fact that “incompetence” is the default setting for bureaucracy.  Without a free market (and competition, as the article points out concerning shipping) so that people and communities can vote with their dollars and get providers of emergency and other services to respond promptly and efficiently or go out of business, negligence and incompetence will not go away.

The failure of FEMA planning and being “caught off-guard” is once again, demonstrating the failure of central planning and depending on government – the lesson needs to be applied to every part of society, and especially to every part of responding to emergencies and disasters.

Mama’s Note: This article is republished for educational and discussion purposes only. The Price of Liberty is a non-commercial site.

About TPOL Nathan

Follower of Christ Jesus (a christian), Pahasapan (resident of the Black Hills), Westerner, Lover of Liberty, Free-Market Anarchist, Engineer, Army Officer, Husband, Father, Historian, Writer, Evangelist. Successor to Lady Susan (Mama Liberty) at TPOL.
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