Comparing COVID-19 and Hurricane María Disaster Responses


The eery similarities between the disastrous federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane María in Puerto Rico in 2017 keep on coming.

You can find my thoughts and comparisons of the two on the Facebook page for the new book, Tossed to the Wind: Stories of Hurricane María Survivors, by me and Nancy Rosado, published this month by the University of Florida Press. Visit upress.ufl.edu and use code FBSAVE for free shipping.

Here’s a sampling of posts. Visit Facebook to watch short videos of people interviewed in the book.

On FEMA

“Time to talk about FEMA, a critical federal agency so hobbled that it tends to make matters worse. FEMA’s mission is to handle natural disasters, but because it’s part of Homeland Security its focus lately has been on immigration, particularly enforcement. And that’s where its funds have been directed, too, according to a recent Wall Street Journal story. FEMA’s budget was cut by nearly half from 2018 to 2019, to $5.3 billion. And this is the agency that was sent to do battle against COVID-19. 

“FEMA has been hobbled for some time, mismanaging Hurricanes Katrina in 2005 (Bush administration) and María in 2017 (Trump). After María, some of FEMA’s staff “was not able to withstand Puerto Rico’s posthurricane ‘extreme or austere environment.’ The agency didn’t have enough disaster-certified personnel to handle the response, … nor did it have enough bilingual employees to communicate effectively” with Puerto Rico residents. FEMA sent 2,800 people to Puerto Rico, less than half the staff it deployed to Texas after Hurricane Harvey the same year. There are other examples of FEMA’s disastrous response to Hurricane María, but you get the idea. I mention FEMA 40 times in “Tossed to the Wind,” by me and Nancy Rosado

From “2017 Hurricane Season FEMA After-Action Report,” published by FEMA in 2018.

“FEMA did not do its job well then and is not doing its job well during the pandemic. “Roughly two-thirds of leadership posts at the department are either vacant or filled with officials in acting capacities,” according to the WSJ story. 

“You don’t need a federal agency until you need a federal agency, and there’s no telling when that might be.”

On Propaganda

“It’s getting harder to tell fact from fiction in the COVID-19 crisis. The White House contradicts itself daily, sometimes giving out bad advice as well. The president liked the health briefings so much he elbowed out the scientists. Meanwhile, conspiracy theories abound touting the coronavirus as man-made in China. It is not, although you could reasonably conclude that China lied about the lethal virus to the rest of the world. 

“All of this is one form or other of propaganda, defined as the spread of false information to sway public opinion. 

“In the aftermath of Hurricane María, the propaganda was not immediately apparent. Then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló was oozing with empathy as he toured the island handing out water and hugs. As the catastrophe deepened it became evident that he didn’t know what he was doing – although he looked great doing it! Navy jacket. Police cap. Cameras at every stop. (Former Florida Gov. Rick Scott also likes to don a Navy cap during natural disasters.)

People suffered – and died – because aid did not arrive as promised. Thus the propaganda wall began to crumble. Because the truth on the ground is always more powerful – and powerfully threatening to propaganda.”

On Enduring Images

“When the pandemic is over, one of its enduring images will be masks or rubber gloves donned to protect us from the insidious virus. They help us stay proactive about the “bad” circulating around us. During and after 9-11 the enduring image was the American flag. The terrorist attack on one of the nation’s and New York City’s iconic buildings unleashed a burst of patriotism. The Stars and Stripes were everywhere, including on vehicles. The Orlando Sentinel printed American flags and inserted them in the paper. 

A blue tarp in Puerto Rico. / Credit Nancy Rosado.

“In the aftermath of Puerto Rico’s Hurricane María in 2017 the lasting image was the blue tarp covering rooftops damaged by hurricane-force winds. They were on every street and visible from above: a sea of blue that spoke loudly to the damages incurred and the suffering within. 

“[T]he first thing that caught my eye was the harsh contrast of the cerulean-blue tarps covering so many homes in San Juan and its surrounding area versus the grayish brown of . . . everything,” writes Nancy Rosado in the preface to Tossed to the Wind.

“Today there’s a scramble for masks and gloves, in the same way stores ran out of U.S. flags. (Most flags are made in China, which also manufactures PPE, and medical supplies, among other things).

“As for the tarps, FEMA didn’t hand out enough of them, forcing homeowners to do without. You may see blue tarps on certain Puerto Rico homes that have yet to be restored from the hurricane, evidence of the careless response by federal, state and local governments. Sound familiar?”

On Being Resourceful

“Resourceful is the operative word today. In the middle of a crisis, there are always people “que se las inventan,” as the saying goes. They come up with ingenious ways of coping. We are seeing people everywhere dusting off sewing machines to make face masks. For the sewing impaired, a number of videos have emerged showing how to fold a napkin or kerchief into a face mask. Nobody thought to do this before, except we now have the crisis, inclination and time to do it. 

“After María barreled through Puerto Rico, everyone had lots of time on their hands. The hours seemed longer especially after dark without electricity to fire up streaming videos. 

Margarita Rodríguez Guzmán/ credit Nancy Rosado

“Margarita Rodríguez Guzmán of Caguas, Puerto Rico, said her husband adapted a charger to connect a car battery to a DVD to watch movies each night in the car, where they sometimes fell asleep. Necessity is the mother of invention, as the proverb goes. Margarita and her husband ‘se las inventaron’ to get by.”

Read more comparisons on the Tossed to the Wind Facebook page.

˜˜María Padilla, Editor

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