Puerto Rico residents were clearly left behind in the total funds allocated and the time it took to receive them, according to a report by the US Commission on Civil Rights when evaluating relief efforts and response to hurricanes Harvey in Texas and María in Puerto Rico in 2017.
This inequity in the federal response to both disasters becomes more evident if one compares that nine days after Harvey hit Texas, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approved $141.8 million in individual assistance for victims, while nine days after María, that federal agency barely approved $6.2 million for survivors in Puerto Rico.
“From landfall through six months after, the disaster response to Harvey in Texas was on a larger scale and faster than the response to María in Puerto Rico, and the Commission received testimony that the slow pace at which federal agencies dispersed aid to Puerto Rico significantly affected survivors’ recovery,” the report stated. It is the first time the US Commission on Civil Rights has examined the civil rights implications of federal disaster response.
According to the report, the data shows that Hurricane María was stronger and caused more damage on the Island than Harvey in Texas, according to their assessment of the loss of electricity and homes, as well as estimates of the general damages compared to Harvey’s.
“A panelist provided testimony indicating that ‘assuming that infrastructure costs are higher in Texas… and therefore more expensive to repair, compared to Puerto Rico, the high damage estimates in Puerto Rico emphasized the severity of the storm damage,’” the Commission stated.
Delayed and deficient federal action across the board, in which FEMA was unable to promptly address the physical and medical infrastructure failures facing Puerto Rico, led to a death toll over six months that exceeded that of Katrina.
The Commission states that the recovery and mitigation process must focus on survivors with the greatest needs, particularly communities of color, those with low incomes, people with disabilities, immigrants, LGBTQ communities, and other marginalized people, as well as having available sufficient staff fluent in the languages spoken in the affected areas.
“The loss of life following the hurricanes was especially evident among older adults, people with medical conditions and those dependent on electricity,” said Norma V. Cantú, chair of the US Commission on Civil Rights.
“We also heard from survivors and experts who testified that the lack of electricity and internet had a significant impact on their ability to access assistance and federal relief programs,” she added.
Cantú urged federal agencies to adopt a flexible policy to provide help to those who need it. That would include providing access to technology to address the digital gap, as well as adopting a hard copy application process when survivors don’t have access to electricity or the internet.
The Commission recommended that FEMA clarify the processes for requesting assistance due to the limitations brought by the lack of electricity and internet access. This change should include a more streamlined website for receiving all federal disaster assistance and developing a process for sharing data among all responding agencies at the federal and local levels.
Unpredictability in the recovery
It was not until September 2021, four years after the tragedy, that FEMA adapted its policies to make it easier for disaster survivors to apply for help without requiring the deed to damaged homes. This was widely denounced by nonprofit and community organizations from the beginning of the disaster response. “Across all Commission briefings, experts agreed that there was a need for clearer guidelines to apply for aid, and that FEMA should avoid inflexible requirements and rigid interpretations of rules,” the document reads.
The Commission recommends better collaboration among federal agencies, local governments, and aid organizations to work in an organized and effective manner to respond to an emergency. Disaster recovery experts say that public engagement with participants should start with emergency planning and response and continue through the closure of recovery and mitigation programs.
The report adds that FEMA must provide disability care training to all shelter staff, including registration, medical and security workers, and offer sign language. The agency must work with its state and local partners to find and locate people with disabilities who may have trouble getting to shelters.
It must also ensure that the shelters have electricity for those whose lives depend on electricity. The document explains that electricity dependents should be identified as people who require ventilators and similar medical equipment, but also those who need refrigeration for their medications or treatment, such as people with diabetes.
The Commission stated that FEMA must hire and train enough staff who are fluent in the languages spoken in disaster areas and ensure that information and applications for all assistance programs are available and can be submitted in the necessary languages.
The report reviews factors that may have affected damage assessments and resource allocations in response to disasters in Texas and Puerto Rico and the efforts of federal agencies to comply with the Stafford Act and other civil rights obligations.
As part of its work, the Commission held three informative sessions, which included testimonies from federal officials from the FEMA Office of Response and Recovery, Inspectors General from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the president of the Association of Emergency Management of Texas, the General Office of Lands of Texas, Puerto Rico’s Secretary of State, Omar Marrero, and former Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz.
The Commission also heard from advocacy leaders, legal experts, and researchers in the field, and met with seriously affected community groups and stakeholders. The Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) testified at the hearings.
The information session was held in Puerto Rico on December 10, 2021, with participation from the Secretary of State, the former Mayor of the capital, as well as community leaders, investigators, and legal experts. During that visit, the Commission also went to the Caño Martín Peña, in San Juan, and to the municipality of Loíza, two communities that suffered serious destruction during Hurricane María, to listen, first-hand, to the stories of disaster survivors about their experience with the emergency response and recovery efforts.
In both disasters, it fell on local community organizations to help those affected understand how to complete the disaster assistance application and, all too often, to assist them in insisting on aid denied through an appeals process that is unclear, arbitrary, and culturally ill-informed about the communities FEMA was supposed to help.