Congress to Create Commission to Investigate Response to Hurricane María

Hurricane María knocked out Puerto Rico’s electric grid for nearly a year. /FEMA photo

Senate Democrats plan to introduce a bill to establish a commission to investigate the federal response to Hurricane María in Puerto Rico.

The legislation is pushed by Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-NY, who last year tried to jumpstart such a commission along with Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss. In the Senate, Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, has introduced companion legislation. The move has gained the support of Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Edward Markey, D-Mass., Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., according to Velázquez, a 13-term congresswoman who also is Puerto Rican.

“As we move into the 116th Congress, I will continue calling for accountability for how Donald Trump and his administration failed 3.4 million American citizens after María struck,” said Velázquez.

Under the proposal, titled The National Commission of the Federal Response to Natural Disasters in Puerto Rico Act, the commission would look into factors that affected the disaster, including the accuracy of the death toll, federal preparedness guidelines issued ahead of the 2017 hurricane season, Puerto Rico’s economic situation, the island’s telecommunications, and the federal government’s mobilization efforts in response to Puerto Rico.

The investigation also would examine disparities in the federal response to Puerto Rico compared with other disasters that year, such as Hurricane Harvey in Texas and later Hurricane Irma in Florida.

The 2017 hurricane catastrophe in Puerto Rico in which at least 3,000 people, possibly more, died, certainly bears further scrutiny. It is one of the worse disasters to hit the United States in decades, and the worse hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in 100 years. Much still needs to be uncovered, such as the lack of hurricane planning, the failure of relief supplies distribution channels, the lack of executive and agency decision-making and much more.

 But Puerto Rico’s horrendous response to the María needs to be evaluated as well, for it has not received the critical eye that it richly deserves. Puerto Rico was woefully unprepared for a near Category 5 hurricane, and even today that is still the case.

Other federal reports have been published in the past year that have shed some light on the disaster, including by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Government Accounting Office (GAO). In fact, a research paper on Puerto Rico’s hurricane deaths published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine was the most widely shared paper over the internet in 2018, according to Altmetric, a data science company that tracks published research. The article was the most widely shared in the company’s history.

More investigations are necessary to get to el grano  or detail of what happened in Puerto Rico and how federal, state and local governments woefully underperformed. That is the only way to prevent similar domino-style failures in the future. The catastrophe and its aftermath pushed more than 100,000 people to flee Puerto Rico, including 53,000 to Florida.

However, the proposed commission also has the whiff of politics as at least three of the senators co-sponsoring the bill are reported to be running for president, including Harris, Warren and Gillibrand. The proposed commission, which will hold public hearings, is likely provide attention seekers plenty of opportunity for political grandstanding.

According to Gillibrand, the commission will “investigate exactly how and why the federal government abandoned its responsibilities and turned its back on Puerto Rico.”

˜˜María T. Padilla, Editor

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