FEMA faces deep mistrust as it vows to help Puerto Rico respond to Fiona

REUTERS/Ricardo Ortiz
A boat lies washed up on shore after the passing of Hurricane Fiona in Ponce, Puerto Rico September 19, 2022.

Five years after the federal government bungled its response to catastrophic Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, the U.S. agency tasked with reacting to major disasters is under pressure again after this week’s Hurricane Fiona battered the territory’s infrastructure, flooded communities and left the island without electricity.

As the slow-moving storm headed north after a punishing push across the island, top officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued repeated promises: This won’t be like last time. FEMA, they have insisted, is far better prepared for Fiona than it was in 2017, when Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico, plunging the island into one of the largest blackouts in U.S. history and claiming thousands of lives. In an after-action report, the agency admitted to systemic failures during the humanitarian crisis.

“We are much better positioned today than we were before Maria,” Keith Turi, FEMA’s assistant administrator for recovery, said in an interview.

By early Tuesday, the rain in Puerto Rico had eased as the storm began lashing Turks and Caicos and threatening Bermuda with winds that had increased in speed, making it a Category 3 hurricane. But even as Fiona moves on, it leaves a daunting path to recovery in Puerto Rico. Downpours will also continue in some parts of the archipelago, aggravating already dire flooding and further complicating the response. Officials said at least four people have died there but have warned that the toll could rise once emergency workers are able to assess the full scope of the damage.

Residents still struggling to rebuild after Maria will be closely tracking the recovery process over the coming weeks and months, many skeptical of the government’s ability to help, with billions of dollars in promised federal relief funds still not disbursed half a decade later. On Sunday, President Joe Biden issued an emergency disaster declaration, and Puerto Rico officials on Tuesday said they expected Biden to upgrade it to a major disaster declaration, which would unlock more federal resources for response and recovery.

“Biden promised to give our request expedited attention,” Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said. The damage is “catastrophic,” he added, especially in the southern and central regions.

“The havoc caused by Hurricane Fiona has been devastating for a lot of people,” Pierluisi said.

FEMA’s chief, Deanne Criswell, traveled to the big island on Tuesday to assess the impact, and she said the agency plans to send hundreds of additional staffers to help with the recovery. “Our partnership with the Government of Puerto Rico has never been stronger,” she said in a statement.

Criswell has said her agency’s top priorities are saving lives and restoring power. Federal resources will be key to both objectives, especially when it comes to propping up the island’s patchwork electrical grid, which was knocked entirely offline when Fiona made landfall over the weekend.

By Tuesday afternoon, power had been restored to nearly 1 in 5 households and businesses in Puerto Rico, according to Luma Energy, the private company that manages electrical transmission on the island. Some 1.2 million customers were still without power, relying on generators or left in the dark.

In any emergency response, power restoration is key, said W. Craig Fugate, FEMA’s administrator during the Obama administration. Once electricity is back online, localities have a much easier time meeting community needs. The concentrated flooding after Fiona could make roads and other areas inaccessible for utility workers, delaying restoration, he said.

About 20 percent of power restored at this point is “a good sign,” Fugate said, but the process could drag on as teams move around the island.

“Generally, restoration goes fast for the areas with limited damages and then slows down as the repairs become more complex in the hard-hit areas,” he said.

It is still too early to judge the intergovernmental response to Fiona, Fugate said, but FEMA appeared well prepared. Fugate recalled visiting an agency warehouse in Puerto Rico during his tenure, which did not include the response to Maria, and finding the shelves inside “barren.” The team there had stocked up based on what it needed during past responses, but Fugate said FEMA should be ready for the “worst-case scenario” on the island.

The agency’s report in the aftermath of Maria conceded that FEMA suffered from a critical lack of aid supplies, which were taxed during the response to an earlier hurricane, Irma, that passed near the island shortly before Maria hit. Officials also wrestled with logistics issues and staffing shortages. One year later, Puerto Ricans judged the response a failure at every level of government.

But FEMA officials say they have learned from the experience and bulked up their preparations.

“We’ve got 10 times more food and water and three times more generators on the island today than we did before Maria,” Turi, the agency’s assistant administrator for recovery, said.

Some 700 FEMA staffers have been based in Puerto Rico to help with the Maria recovery effort, he said, and they can assist with the Fiona response if necessary.

While the extent of the damage is still being assessed, early reports suggest the big island’s south and its central mountain regions sustained the most severe damage, with flash flooding and mudslides. A large swath of the territory got more than 20 inches of rain, with several pockets recording more than 25 inches. The intense downpour caused rivers and canals to overflow, washing away bridges, like the one spanning the Guaonica River in Utuado, a town in the central mountains.

In the Ponce region, the hurricane dumped more than 32 inches of rain. The expected downpours in the coming days could also push the total rainfall in other areas to 30 inches. And in the southwest, the Guanajibo River near the town of Hormigueros crested at more than 29 feet, well above the threshold for a major flood and higher than its previous record level of just over 28½ feet, set during Maria.

“What Hurricane Maria brought was wind, lots of wind – unlike this one, which brought too much water,” said Eric R Garcia Flores, a member of a rescue unit in Caguas, a mountainous municipality that sustained extensive damage.

FEMA officials said they cannot yet estimate the extent of the economic impact on the island, but stories of loss have emerged from several town and cities.

In the Susúa Baja neighborhood of Yauco, Radamés Ramírez and Keily Sánchez’s house had survived Hurricanes George and Maria. But not Fiona.

The couple, their daughter and pets had to leave the property, located about 60 miles southwest of San Juan, on Saturday after part of their wood and zinc-paneled roof fell off, they told the newspaper Primera Hora.

When the couple returned Monday morning to assess the damage, there was not much left. The floor was flooded and water leaked through the walls. The couch, a recent gift, was so soaked in water that they had to throw it out.

“It wasn’t a castle, but it was my home, and that’s what made me feel happy,” Ramírez said in an interview with the outlet.

In the central town of Cidra, Gabriela Colón Arzola described a harrowing escape from her flooding home with her two children. Water was rising in the house, threatening to trap them, she said in a video published by el Nuevo Día.

After finally wrenching the door open, she saw her car covered in water and washing machines floating down the street. The three scrambled to the top of a nearby hill and found shelter at a neighbor’s house.

On Tuesday, Colón Arzola told the newspaper, she returned to her home to assess the damage. All she managed to save was her baby’s crib.

“I don’t have diapers, I don’t have clothes, I don’t have anything,” the woman said. “I’m starting from zero.”

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The Washington Post’s Juan C. Dávila in Caguas, Puerto Rico, and Arelis R. Hernández and Jason Samenow contributed to this report.