A particularly damning report published by the New England Journal of Medicine, which can hardly be characterized as fake news, shows the likely death toll in Puerto Rico following hurricane Maria is closer to 5,000, rather than the politically stubborn figure of 64. With this tragic revision, which bucks the narrative that Puerto Rico was not a real catastrophe because the body count was low, the devastation wrought by hurricane Maria is undeniable – and the island-wide war trauma understandable. This report also confirms what many Puerto Ricans have felt for years, which is that despite U.S. citizenship as a birthright, they are a de facto second-class – a dubious distinction shared by poor and marginalized communities on the U.S. mainland that are still recovering from natural disasters. Yet there is a fleeting chance to not only change the arc of Puerto Rico’s future, but to restore faith in the U.S. and in our better nature enshrined in the motto, E pluribus unum, out of many, one.
A nation where 40% of the population cannot withstand a $400 emergency should take little comfort in such gaping holes in our societal safety net. This much has been evidenced in Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas and California, to name but a few places across the country where disasters have been declared. While these communities feel some degree of isolation following a catastrophe (whether man-made or natural), the isolation of islands, the veritable canaries in the climate change coal mine, underscores the need for resilience to begin at the household level. As the cascading response failures revealed in Puerto Rico, where much like Hurricane Katrina before it, the local, state, federal and even the military apparatus were slow off the mark and short on their relief horizons. This is so, in no small measure, because the mandate of many of these agencies, like FEMA, is not to be a first responder. Indeed, the true first responders are individuals and their immediate communities. These other disaster relief functions, particularly the military, should be suppliers of last resort. At least this is how the theory of disaster relief plays out. In practice, as revealed in Puerto Rico and Houston for example, the sheer scale, impact and severity of these disasters can paralyze entire cities, states or regions – leaving little choice but to turn to last resorts first.
Against this backdrop, there is a special obligation on businesses – especially large ones that enjoy so called “fortress balance sheets” – to extend their disaster recovery plans to their communities. Widening the radius of corporate social responsibility to include post-disaster community continuity will not only help get businesses back on their feet, it will also help get employees and commerce flowing again, on which businesses clearly rely. The example of Colorcon, a pharmaceutical company with operations in Puerto Rico is illustrative. Their operation in the town of Humacao, a mountainous community in the interior of the island, had a robust business continuity plan that weathered Hurricane Maria’s initial onslaught. Similarly, the company’s backup power systems performed as needed. The more severe business continuity strain, however, emerged when employees and the wider community could not countenance returning to work while their homes, neighborhoods and schools where darkened for 6 months without power and other essentials. This saga played out across the island and among first responders who faced the false choice of focusing on their own recovery or reporting to duty. For this reason, the roles reverse between first responders and last resorts.
All our lines of defense have been strained in 2017, but nowhere more so than among the poor and vulnerable. Now is a good moment to recall that statistic that 40% of the U.S. population cannot withstand a $400 emergency and ask whether we are resilient as a society? In the last 18 years there has been an average of 124 national disasters declared across the U.S. comparing to an annual average of 39 for the preceding 50. This trend does not care about denials of climate change causality. Rather it requires concerted efforts to focus on the effects, mitigation, response and recovery. Each of these disasters is completely indiscriminate and color blind as to political stripes. However, risk does favor the prepared and recovery is materially easier for the financially sound, notwithstanding the yawning insurance protection gap and the many points of friction plaguing the industry. What these disasters are, and have been historically, are reminders of what unites us as a nation and what our humanitarian obligations are in the world, as many communities have been endured the same onslaught, but without the financial or military wherewithal the U.S. enjoys. As the adage goes, to whom much is given, much is expected, provided of course charity begins at home.
History will not look favorably on the U.S. response in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and in other marginalized post-disaster communities. Indeed, it is fair to say this will rank among our worst national disgraces, as a visit to San Juan feels more like Caracas than a once vibrant part of the U.S. True of any crisis how we got here matters much less than what we do now and there is still an opportunity to do right by the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico, a task that is especially urgent as the hurricane season is now upon us. For this, the Band-Aid fixes on the island’s electricity grid, which is the frequent host of island-wide power outages with or without a massive hurricane, is an area for urgent attention. Calls for privatization of the public utility, PREPA, will ring hollow and only attract a new round of “vulture capitalists” eyeing short-term gains in Puerto Rico, unless the move is also backed with substantial financial stimulus, debt forgiveness and restructuring.
The tug-o-war between the federally-appointed fiscal control board, which controls Puerto Rico’s purse strings, the local government and PREPA’s leadership does not aid matters. Indeed, Puerto Rico’s austerity measures, which are biting into the marrow of critical sectors like education, healthcare, first response, among others, are given rise to large May Day protests with violent scenes typical of Europe and Latin America, but not the U.S. On this last score, the disaster displaced, which numbers more than 200,000 from Puerto Rico alone (on top of the million strong mass exodus over the last decade), are typically called internally-displaced people (IDPs) in humanitarian parlance. Against this backdrop, the bureaucracy and red tape aimed at preventing fraud and validating insurance and relief claims ends up costing lives, further damaging property and holding economic recovery at bay. With resilience and national security, we are as strong as the weakest link. 2017 showed us that we are quite vulnerable indeed. The technologies, capital and ingenuity exist to make the U.S. resilient again and to shore up our humanitarian engagement in the world. What is missing is the sense of community and the leadership to make it so.