Why states took so long to dispatch disaster aid to Puerto Rico

State officials say Puerto Rico was slow to ask for or accept assistance — a charge the commonwealth governor disputes

By Christopher Flavelle and Jonathan Levin
Bloomberg News

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Within a week of Hurricane Harvey slamming into the Texas coast, Virginia had dispatched a 14-person urban search-and-rescue team, a 17-person team to save people trapped by flood waters, and a National Guard team with 40 soldiers and seven helicopters.

But in the two weeks since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Virginia had sent just a single person though an interstate compact for managing disaster response. His job: helping the island coordinate its requests for aid to other states.

Critics have focused on the pace of federal aid reaching Puerto Rico.
Critics have focused on the pace of federal aid reaching Puerto Rico. (Photo/AP)

Critics have focused on the pace of federal aid reaching Puerto Rico. But states — a significant source of disaster assistance — also took far longer to dispatch equipment and personnel to the island after Maria than to Texas or Florida after Harvey and Irma, prolonging the suffering of Puerto Rico’s residents and delaying its recovery.

State officials say Puerto Rico was slow to ask for or accept assistance — a charge the commonwealth governor disputes, saying Maria proved more powerful than expected and that he acted appropriately. There were also worries how the bankrupt island would reimburse the states as required by the compact. Assistance began moving after the federal government agreed — six days after the storm — to foot the bill for the recovery.

“There were some concerns” about Puerto Rico’s ability to repay the states, said Mike Sprayberry, president of the National Emergency Management Association, a group of state disaster-response coordinators. It runs the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, which coordinates most state-to-state assistance.

Puerto Rico was slower than Texas or Florida to make its first formal request to EMAC for help from other states. Texas first requested help on the day that Harvey smashed into the coast northeast of Corpus Christi and days before it began flooding the streets of Houston. Florida was even faster, making its first request six days before Irma made landfall.

Puerto Rico officials didn’t make their first formal request for interstate assistance until Sept. 21, the day after Maria struck, knocking out the island’s power grid flooding cities and destroying homes and crops.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello defended the timing of the request, saying it took time to appreciate the extent of the devastation.

Once that was clear, Rossello said in an interview, his office “asked for EMAC, and asked for them quickly.”

Like Virginia, Pennsylvania was quick to announce assistance for Texas and Florida. On the day that Harvey struck Texas, the state sent two members of a search-and-rescue team, and another 45 members two days later. The day after Irma hit Florida, Pennsylvania sent 23 people to help with storm cleanup. But it wasn’t until a week after Maria that Pennsylvania sent help to Puerto Rico through the compact.

New Jersey sent a search-and-rescue team to Texas two days after Harvey made landfall through an appeal outside of the EMAC system. Two days before Irma struck the Florida Keys, New Jersey sent 134 National Guard soldiers to the state. Yet it took New Jersey nine days after Maria before it sent personnel to Puerto Rico through EMAC.

Massachusetts announced assistance for Florida through the interstate compact on the same day that Irma hit, dispatching emergency and environmental staff, as well as a nine-person nursing team. By comparison, it took nine days before the state announced its first assistance for Puerto Rico through that compact.

When asked about the discrepancy, each state had the same response: They can’t send what Puerto Rico hasn’t asked for.

During the week before Irma made landfall and the two weeks afterward, Florida made 115 specific requests for EMAC assistance, according to the National Emergency Management Association. Texas made 90 such requests in the corresponding period around Harvey.

Puerto Rico has made 49 requests so far, two weeks after the storm hit the island.

“We cannot deploy personnel, equipment or other aid without a formal request from the impacted state,” Jeff Caldwell, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, said in an email. “We respect the EMAC process and will not self-deploy.”

New Jersey deployed when the exact expertise and resources were identified and requested through EMAC and FEMA, said Brian Murray, press secretary to Governor Chris Christie.

The island has yet to formally request help from Florida, according to Alberto Moscoso, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

On Oct. 1, Gov. Bruce Rauner of Illinois sent Rossello a letter urging him to ask for more help. “We are all deeply concerned about your safety and welfare,” Rauner wrote. “Nearly 550 Illinois National Guardsmen are on alert for deployment if you determine they are needed and request our help through EMAC.”

One state was quick to move.

New York State responded to Puerto Rico’s first request on the day it was made. The next day, Gov. Andrew Cuomo flew to Puerto Rico with more than 34,000 bottles of water, 9,600 ready-to-eat meals, 3,000 canned goods, 500 flashlights, 1,400 cots and 10 generators, as well as New York Power Authority engineers, translators and drone pilots.

“New York has the largest population of Puerto Ricans outside of Puerto Rico,” Cuomo told CNN. “So it’s very personal here in New York.”

The slow pace of state aid may also reflect something else: Puerto Rico’s fiscal straits, and its ability to pay states back for their help.

Under the rules that govern EMAC, the state or territory that receives help is required to pay for that assistance, then seek reimbursement from FEMA for a portion of those costs. In general, FEMA covers just 75 percent of assistance when a disaster is declared.

But Puerto Rico is carrying $74 billion in debt, and declared bankruptcy in May. That may have been a factor for some states deciding whether to send assistance, according to Sprayberry, the head of the emergency managers association.

Sprayberry is also the emergency director for North Carolina. He said financial considerations didn’t affect his state’s decisions. “Our belief was that in the end, it would be worked out.”

Copyright 2017 Bloomberg News

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