Racism, Politics Screwed Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria, New Peer-Reviewed Study Shows

Racism, Politics Screwed Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria, New Peer-Reviewed Study Shows
Photo by David Weydert/Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard
Photo by David Weydert/Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard
The worst tragedy of Donald Trump's presidency may have already passed. Nearly 3,000 Americans died after the near-category-five Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, according to a spate of recent studies, And the Trump administration suppressed or failed to adequately report the true death toll.

Now a new study in the peer-reviewed journal BMJ Global Health has confirmed the federal government provided more money and faster support to Texas and Florida after hurricanes Harvey and Irma. All three storms made landfall in 2017. Maria was by far the most lethal.

"The federal government responded on a larger scale and much more quickly across measures of federal money and staffing to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida, compared with Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico," the study's authors wrote. "The variation in the responses was not commensurate with storm severity and need."

The study is sure to add fuel to claims that U.S. lawmakers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) treat the island like a second-rate colony. Within the first nine days after each hurricane hit, Harvey and Irma survivors received about $100 million in FEMA money for individuals and families. Maria survivors got just $6 million in the same period.

The trend continued during the recovery. Two months after each storm, Texans and Floridians received almost $1 billion in FEMA aid. It took four months for Maria victims to hit that same number.

click to enlarge BMJ GLOBAL HEALTH
BMJ Global Health

The researchers also looked at federal staffing levels. Again, nine days after storms hit in Texas and Florida, the federal government had stationed 30,000 employees post-Harvey and 16,200 here post-Irma. In that same time period after Maria, the feds sent just 10,000 workers to Puerto Rico. A maximum of 19,000 federal staffers were ever sent to the American territory — fewer than the peak of 31,000 deployed to Texas for a less-severe storm.

The study also whacked federal lawmakers for dragging their feet in approving disaster aid for the island. In September 2017, lawmakers authorized $15.25 billion for Texas and Florida. The next month, the feds offered Puerto Rico a $4.9 billion disaster loan, which was ultimately denied in January 2018 after creditors decided the island likely could not pay the money back. President Trump did not sign a third bill until February 2018 — and that bill gave Puerto Rico money only if the territory agreed to develop 12- and 24-month recovery plans. The same bill gave Texas and Florida money without similar requirements.

The study's authors suggested that a host of causes likely contributed to the delays — racism against the Puerto Rican people, political chumminess between the Trump administration and Southern Republican lawmakers, federal officials downplaying the severity of the humanitarian crisis on the island. The study continues:

Our results show that the federal response was faster and more generous across measures of money and staffing to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida, compared with Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. This result would be unsurprising if Hurricane Maria was less damaging than Irma and Harvey. However, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma made landfall as category four hurricanes, and Maria hit Puerto Rico as a ‘high-end’ category 4, or just below the threshold of a category 5 hurricane. Maria caused more damage in Puerto Rico than Irma in Florida or Harvey in Texas in terms of loss of electricity and housing destruction, with overall damage estimates comparable to Harvey, and greater than estimates for Irma. Assuming that infrastructure costs are higher in Texas and Florida, and therefore more expensive to repair, compared with Puerto Rico, the high damage estimates in Puerto Rico emphasize the severity of storm damage. Thus, assuming that disaster responses should be commensurate with the degree of storm severity and need of the population, the federal response is questionable and the degree of variation between the disaster responses is problematic.
Irma's impact in Florida was profound: Huge sections of the Middle Keys were flattened, and the storm cut power to nearly two million Miamians and roughly 65 percent of the entire state. During one outage, 12 elderly residents at an underregulated Hollywood nursing home died from heat-related causes, sparking a public outcry and calls for better safety regulations at nursing facilities.

But the tragedies in Florida paled in comparison to those in Puerto Rico. It took 11 months to fully restore the island's power grid. Water became extremely scarce. Funeral homes were flooded with bodies, and data showed requests for funeral assistance from FEMA skyrocketed after the storm. An estimated 50,000 Puerto Ricans fled to Florida.

While President Trump claims, with zero proof, that the gigantic death toll after the storm was fabricated to smear him, the mortality rate shows the government failed to protect Puerto Ricans while favoring Texans and Floridians.

"Considering the severe undercount of indirect deaths associated with Maria, the federal response has been inadequate," the study says.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.