Every Community an Island: Preparing for Catastrophic Disasters

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Sean Card

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

In 2017, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator testified on Capitol Hill that America is a nation unprepared for disasters.[1] The current American emergency management structure exhibits an overreliance on federal disaster aid and too little focus on American communities. This dynamic is problematic amid catastrophic disasters that threaten the integrity of the tiered National Response Framework, which stipulates that higher levels of government and outside disaster response resources fill resource voids. When truly catastrophic disasters strike, American communities will be “on their own” for significant periods and must consider how to prepare for such contingencies. Preparing for and surviving such catastrophes requires what FEMA commonly refers to as a “whole community approach” to disaster management.[2]

This thesis employs a single case study methodology of Puerto Rico’s 2017 experience of a catastrophic disaster, Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane at landfall on September 20. This thesis seeks to answer one primary research question via two supporting questions:

  • How can the whole community prepare to manage the consequences of catastrophic disasters without the aid of organizations beyond their borders?
  • What were the preparedness gaps in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in 2017 following Hurricane Maria?
  • How did communities and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico overcome disaster preparedness gaps amid catastrophe through formal and informal networks?

The two elements supporting the primary research question—response shortcomings and improvisations—are cataloged in the context of FEMA’s seven community lifelines. This structure allows communities and emergency management practitioners to view Hurricane Maria’s impacts as component parts whereby the whole community response actions can be retrospectively examined to understand better and inform more effective approaches to build community preparedness and disaster resilience against future catastrophic disasters. Puerto Rico’s shortfalls and adaptations, considered collectively, will contribute to informing how communities cope when the National Response Framework enters partial or total collapse when outside response resources become unavailable or otherwise inadequate to meet the needs of those impacted by disaster.

The results of this study highlight that Hurricane Maria occurred in the context of many systemic issues plaguing the island, primarily rooted in extractive industries, and associated divestment in the island’s business sector when favorable tax structures “sunsetted” in legislation. The resulting fragile roadways, power grid, communications systems, water networks, and other infrastructure served as amplifiers of disaster impacts. Additionally, Puerto Rico faces significant public health challenges that presented increased population vulnerability to disaster impacts and response challenges.

However, the study also indicated highly cooperative and determined communities that came together to survive collectively in the days, weeks, and months following Hurricane Maria. Community cooperation was facilitated by long-standing community-based organizations (CBOs). Since Maria, many other CBOs have surfaced to address population needs, such as food, housing, medical care, solar energy, farming, etc.

The conclusions of this study center upon four distinct themes and the seven community lifelines. Each of the four themes was derived from findings common across all lifelines and included holistic disaster preparedness, integration of non-governmental actors, decentralization, and redundant systems. These themes appeared to reside at the root of all critical response and recovery shortcomings throughout the study.

In brief, the following represents a brief summation and crosscut of conclusions reached for each community lifeline:

  • Safety and Security Lifeline—The near-total collapse of disaster response capabilities in Puerto Rico suggests the island should reimagine community safety and security by reaching deeply into communities and involving them in disaster preparedness so they can operate as assets at times when government resources are overwhelmed.
  • Food, Water, and Shelter LifelineIn a catastrophic disaster, community needs will outpace available resources, which calls for more resilient communities and that “slack” be built into available supply chains to boost resiliency. Puerto Rico also maintains a heavy and risky reliance on imported food goods due to the long-term degradation of its agricultural sector.
  • Health and Medical LifelinePuerto Rico faces a stark public health situation that will continue to exacerbate an effective disaster response in the future if not viewed as a priority. It is also necessary to bolster dispersed medical capacity to ensure it is in close proximity to those in need, which can be accomplished by local medical networks and non-government organizations (NGOs) or paramedicine providers.
  • Energy LifelinePuerto Rico’s power sector filed for bankruptcy just months before Hurricane Maria struck the island. Amid the storm, both distribution and transmissions lines were devastated, which resulted in the largest power outage in U.S. history and second-largest outage in recorded history.[3] The widespread power outage, lasting nearly a year in many areas, affected and complicated all other community lifelines. The power grid remains financially plagued as the island seeks to repair the system, and solar has become a favorable alternative in many communities.
  • Communications LifelineA near-total loss of communications capability left communities uninformed, unable to communicate resource needs, and hindered first responders’ operational coordination. Non-governmental actors, such as the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), and Google’s X-Lab, proved able to bridge critical gaps in communications capabilities. The ARRL provided HAM, or amateur radio operator assistance, and Google was able to field experimental technology in an attempt to re-establish communications rapidly across the island.[4]
  • Transportation LifelinePuerto Rico’s transportation infrastructure was in a state of decline and disrepair for years preceding Hurricane Maria.[5] Maria caused a record 40,000 landslides across the island that isolated many communities and prevented commodity distribution.[6] Many pre-disaster debris management contracts also failed to deliver required services to re-establish access quickly to hard-hit communities. This capability gap prompted many communities to search for basic supplies and band together to clear debris in their own communities.[7]
  • Hazardous Materials LifelinePuerto Rico faces various hazardous materials (HAZMAT) risks primarily from long-term infrastructure degradation due to fiscal constraints and divestment from the island.[8] The poor safety track records of drinking and wastewater facilities and high rates of exposure to HAZMAT from several industries, such as farming, pharmaceutical production, petroleum facilities, coal plants, and others, serve as major public risk factors requiring consideration in planning for future catastrophic disasters.

In total, the experience of Puerto Rico illustrates what occurs when the national response framework is under extreme stress. Local and state response apparatuses collapsed, and mutual-aid and federal resources were slow to respond within that unexpected context. The response delay compelled informal actors, the private sectors, and communities to fulfill often unconventional roles and to provide critical resources and services to bridge resource shortfalls until a sense of normalcy could be returned to the island.

The study indicated that despite informal and community actors rising to the occasion, their inclusion in disaster response and recovery was mostly unplanned, which likely resulted in under-leveraged resources. Since Hurricane Maria, many groups have renewed energies on disaster preparedness and resilience to foster greater synergy in future disasters. Still, the island faces systemic preparedness obstacles on many fronts.

 

 

[1] The former FEMA Administrator, Brock Long’s, exact words were, “We don’t have a true culture of preparedness in this country. Our citizens are not prepared.” “2017 Hurricane Disaster Lessons,” C-SPAN, video, March 15, 2018, 3:17:03, https://www.c-span.org/video/?442612-1/federal-state-officials-testify-lessons-learned-2017-disasters.

[2] Federal Emergency Management Agency, A Whole Community Approach to Emergency Management: Principles, Themes, and Pathways for Action, FDOC 104-008-1 (Washington, DC: Department of Homeland Security, 2011), 3, https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/20130726-1813-25045-3330/whole_community_dec2011__2_.pdf.

[3] New York Power Authority et al., Build Back Better: Reimagining and Strengthening the Power Grid of Puerto Rico (Albany, NY: State of New York, Office of the Governor, 2017), 11, https://www.governor.ny.gov/sites/governor.ny.gov/files/atoms/files/PRERWG_Report_PR_Grid_Resiliency_Report.pdf; American Society of Civil Engineers, 2019 Report Card for Puerto Rico’s Infrastructure (San Juan, PR: American Society of Civil Engineers, 2019), 28, https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/state-item/puerto-rico/.

[4] American Radio Relay League, 2017 Hurricane Season After-Action Report (Washington, DC: American Radio Relay League, 2018), 2, http://www.arrl.org/files/file/Public%20Service/ARES/2017%20Hurricane%20Season%20AAR.pdf; Jessica Guynn, “Google Parent’s Project Loon Delivers Internet to 100,000 in Puerto Rico,” USA Today, November 9, 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2017/11/09/google-parents-project-loon-delivers-internet-100-000-puerto-rico/849627001/.

[5] American Society of Civil Engineers, 2019 Report Card for Puerto Rico’s Infrastructure, 38.

[6] Erin K. Bessette-Kirton et al., “Landslides Triggered by Hurricane Maria: Assessment of an Extreme Event in Puerto Rico,” GSA Today 29, no. 6 (June 2019): 4–10.

[7] Associated Press, “Puerto Ricans Hunt for Precious Wi-Fi and Cell Signals,” Boston Globe, September 25, 2017, https://www.bostonglobe.com/news/world/2017/09/25/puerto-ricans-hunt-for-precious-and-cell-signals/umetMJbhJ46QgMmO9D10tM/story.html; Patrick J. Holladay et al., “Utuado, Puerto Rico and Community Resilience Post-Hurricane Maria: The Case of Tetuan Reborn,” Recreation, Parks, and Tourism in Public Health 3 (2019): 5–16, https://doi.org/10.2979/rptph.3.1.02.

[8] Jordan R. Fischbach et al., “After Hurricane Maria: Predisaster Conditions, Hurricane Damage, and Recovery Needs in Puerto Rico,” RAND, 275, September 30, 2020, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2595.html.

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