Why is Disaster Relief So Disastrous?

On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans with a vengeance. In the aftermath, criticism of the government’s response was swift and decisive: America had learned nothing from prior failures in relief efforts. The Bush administration had not paid ample attention to the threat in Louisiana and had neglected to put emergency plans in place or to share information that might have saved lives, according to a Congressional report that revealed 90 findings of failure at all levels of government.

Much of the criticism about failures to respond quickly and appropriately to Katrina fell on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as the lead federal agency for disaster preparedness, response and relief.

FEMA’s main job is to distribute aid to individuals, state, and local governments after natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes. But FEMA’s response to many major disasters has often been slow, disorganized or “profligate,” as one critic put it. The agency’s actions have sometimes been harmful, such as when they blocked relief efforts of other organizations because of bureaucracy and dysfunction.

“The mistakes made by FEMA during its response to Hurricane Katrina ‘are the stuff of legend’” one analyst said in a 2012 US News and Report article, including “fail[ing] to get to the worse hit areas for days and [being] unprepared for the scope of the disaster.” FEMA’s failures, the article claimed, “are largely due to the inability of the federal government to acquire the local knowledge needed for effective disaster response and relief.”

The Red Cross, often the go-to organization for people who want to help, also fails to be effective in its response. For example, in the aftermath of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac, the organization “botched key elements of its mission, leaving behind a trail of unmet needs,” according to a 2014 report by ProPublica and NPR. “Red Cross officials at national headquarters in Washington, D.C. compounded the charity’s inability to provide relief by ‘diverting assets for public relations purposes,’” the report claimed.

International bodies, like the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), continue to offer rhetorical responses in the aftermath of natural disasters. In a September 2017 response to this year’s horrific hurricanes, PAHO’s director told ministers of affected countries attending a conference that she extended “heartfelt condolences on the occasion of the deaths and injuries, the utter devastation and destruction, the extensive dislocation and the psychological trauma resulting from [the four hurricanes].” But have we seen any reports of PAHO attempting to alleviate dire health-related problems in Puerto Rico or elsewhere in the region?

Meanwhile, we are repeatedly reminded of the failures of governmental and non-governmental organizations, here and elsewhere, to learn from past experience – whether a devastating earthquake in Haiti, or a similar disaster in Nepal.

The most recent example is, of course, Puerto Rico, where lawmaker Jose Enrique Melendez called the federal response “a disaster,” and the mayor of San Juan begged the  U.S. President  for help, saying that if it failed to come, the little island of American inhabitants would “see something close to a genocide.”

“We are dying here,” Carmen Yulin Cruz told the president. “Mayday! We are in trouble!” She could not fathom, she said, “the thought that the greatest nation in the world cannot figure out the logistics for a small island of 100 miles by 35 miles.”

Donald Trump’s response? He called the mayor “nasty” and blamed Puerto Ricans for not doing enough to help themselves. Blind to the reality of the disaster – no water, no food, no communication, no electricity, no health care for emergencies or chronic illnesses – he simply tossed paper towels at people and then threatened to cut off relief funds and pull out first responders.

A Congressional bill for $36.5 billion in emergency funding for hurricane relief in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, as well as for wildfire relief, was subsequently requested by the Trump administration. The House measure included $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund.

Anyone want to guess how much of that $36.5 billion will go to Puerto Rico? Or how FEMA will use the proposed $18.7 billion?

The legislation also proposed that Puerto Rico receive a $4.9 billion low-interest Treasury loan so it doesn’t run out of cash as the island recovers. That’s right: a loan to an island already in desperate straits financially and in need of debt forgiveness if it has any hope of recovering from the two hurricanes that slammed the island in rapid succession.

The continuing failures of timely and effective disaster relief boggle the mind and beg this question, based on lessons learned: What specific steps need to be taken and what key elements must be in place for relief efforts to best serve those affected by catastrophic natural disasters?

Now, in light of the unprecedented travesty of Mr. Trump’s behavior and inaction in Puerto Rico, we must also ask, how do we ensure a compassionate response? In the face of nature’s fury, how do we contain the fury of a president who fails to grasp essential humanity? 

In these troubling times, perhaps that’s the first question we should be addressing.