As a former United Nations official specializing in Humanitarian Response and Complex Emergencies, I had the opportunity to work in some highly challenging post-conflict environments such as Liberia, war-zones such as Somalia and post-disaster environments such as Southeast Asia after the 2004 Tsunami. However, assessing the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico is particularly sobering and disheartening given that the island is just a few miles away and a U.S. territory that deserves much more support. Before diving into the key issues in Puerto Rico (post-Maria), it is important to understand the big picture.

The status of Puerto Rico vis-à-vis its relationship with the United States remains a major hurdle not allowing the island to rise to a state of responsibility to take full charge of its affairs, including preventing and managing natural disasters such as Hurricane Maria. Hence, a major challenge for the island is to contend with and come to terms with a decision on its governance status once and for all. This and the geography of Puerto Rico are the determining factors of its economic prosperity, primarily due to its relatively small size as an island; its lack of natural resources used to produce raw materials; and, consequently, its dependence on imports.

When Hurricane María struck Puerto Rico on September 6th, 2017, millions of the island’s citizens lost everything, from their homes to basic necessities, like water, power, and fuel for their cars. The extensive destruction of the Island’s basic infrastructure including homes, roads, bridges, power and communication knocked out the very platforms and channels for providing effective assistance to relieve suffering and save lives, hence the high death toll of almost 3,000. The post-disaster recovery efforts has, in essence, to focus on infrastructure repairs for long term resilience; rebuilding a national grid that can withstand future natural disasters of Hurricane Maria’s magnitude or higher; strengthening the Hurricane Maria Community Relief and Recovery Fund through the provision of grants to local initiatives and low-income communities; and, strengthening the provision of psychological and psychosocial services to children who have experienced physical and mental hardship, and are referred to as Puerto Rico’s “Maria Generation.” While FEMA has made notable important achievements in Puerto Rico, it also admitted (in June, 2018) an internal report that it “failed to properly prepare for the hurricane season and was unable to provide adequate support to hurricane victims in Puerto Rico” due to massive communication issues (95% of cellphone towers were down), inability to correctly identify containers, and “a lack of key supplies on Puerto Rico before the storm, unqualified staff, and challenges with delivering emergency supplies.” Given the shortcomings, the task fell to some individuals (such as Bethenny Frankel of B Strong & Delivering Good, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban and rapper, Pitbull) who took proactive action to successfully deliver aid directly to the people.

However, Puerto Rico and its disaster-ravaged population must do much more than simply rebuild. The recent financial crisis, coupled with years of underinvestment in infrastructure, have intensified the impact of the storm across multiple sectors: the entire electric grid, road and highway networks, the clean drinking water delivery system, overcrowded urban and rural housing areas, and more have all been affected.What went wrong? How can the vicious sweep of destruction and devastation that marked Hurricanes Maria and Irma be turned into an opportunity for Puerto Rico to recover, rebuild and prosper? Looking at the devastation of Hurricane Maria in hindsight and assessing the level and quality of the response to the crisis, five major weaknesses emerge viz Lack of Emergency Preparedness; Slow Early Response to the Crisis; Lack of National Ready Capacity for Emergency/Disaster Response; Poor Management of Resources; and, the Overall Response to Crisis and the Politicization of the Crisis Paralyzing Effective Early Recovery.

Except for the Somalia Civil War, in most of the countries I served in as Senior UN Staff and Humanitarian Expert/Veteran, UNICEF and sister international organizations such as WFP and UNHCR have assisted countries vulnerable to natural disasters such as Bangladesh, India and Indonesia through training and scenario planning of their staff in concert with large numbers of national partners to engage in emergency/disaster preparedness for early warning and strategic pre-deployment of supplies and resources. Country level offices and structures provide the core infrastructure to support field preparedness and response to save lives, protect rights and reduce vulnerabilities to disasters and conflicts. In the case of Puerto Rico, it was assumed that such preparedness did not require the international interventions of experts from outside as it was viewed as the national responsibility of the U.S. It was wrongly assumed that the island had been readied by a comprehensive Disaster Preparedness and Mitigation Plan to face and survive the onslaught of a Category 5 hurricane. There was no such Disaster Preparedness Plan. Puerto Rico was left at the mercy of the vagaries of nature. Consequently, Puerto Rico, as a non-independent sovereign state, could not directly request the intervention of the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) as part of the international emergency response system for responding to sudden-onset emergencies, to intervene, coordinate and respond to Hurricane Maria. Critically, the administration did not invite any United Nations relief agencies or UN disaster-recovery experts who could have

An effective, rapid and robust early response to a disaster can make the difference between survival and mitigation or total collapse of the response system with ramifying impact on lives and property. At The Bassiouni Group (TBG) where I personally oversee a talented group of Humanitarian Experts who are well equipped with decades of extensive practical world-wide experience, responding rapidly and effectively to disasters and emergency, is second nature. These experts are adept in relating to and working closely with national counterparts of diverse backgrounds. No such core dependable group of experts were readily available on the ground at the very start of Hurricane Maria. As noted by FRONTLINE and NPR’s “Blackout in Puerto Rico” Investigation, the management of the responses were checkered and uncoordinated leading to the waste of resources and loss of critical time that could have been invested wisely in achieving concrete results in rolling back the disaster to pave the way for an early recovery. This, plus the absence of a well-developed National Capacity for Emergency/Disaster Response and Mitigation Plan, deprived Puerto Rico of much needed early effective response to Hurricane Maria.

Before the disaster could be brought under control, a tension developed between the authorities on the Island and Washington D.C. over the human toll of the disaster and the level and quality of the response provided by FEMA. This soon assumed a political dimension with the US President threatening to cut off aid and funding to Puerto Rico on the pretext that his government had conducted the most successful response to Hurricane Maria and had overfunded the disaster while the Island contests the claim and is accusing him of misrepresenting the facts, discrimination and racism.

Given the data and facts available and based on its extensive experiences in working in major disasters and emergencies globally, there are a number of conclusions we can reach in response to the questions poised above. The extensive destruction of the Island’s basic infrastructure including homes, roads, bridges, power and communication knocked out the very platforms and channels for providing effective assistance to relieve suffering and save lives. When FEMA and the INGOs waded in to assist there was lack of leadership, coordination and direction. The absence of a robust national Capacity for Emergency/Disaster Response and Mitigation equipped with a viable Contingency Plan and strong emergency experiences deprived FEMA and external actors of essential and knowledgeable partners on the ground with whom to work hand in hand. FEMA came forward with massive funding to support relief as well as early recovery efforts but how the resources were channeled and utilized remain shrouded in an opaque reporting system. To add to the dissatisfaction and the agitation for effective post-disaster actions, the Trump administration has announced that it has already over-funded the Puerto Rico disaster response. It has concluded that inexperience, lack of contingency planning and national emergency response capacity are at the bottom of the human error and shortfall in containing and managing the massive natural disaster that devastated the Island.

We at The Bassiouni Group see a pathway out of this disaster by establishing a partnership between the Private Sector and the Government that can allow the latter and local governments to accelerate the early recovery efforts, rebuild better to speed up long term recovery for laying out the foundation for a Puerto Rico with a resilient infrastructure that is socially and economically vibrant. This will mean securing the assistance of reliable international institutions with known track records in leveraging recovery funding and efforts to support Puerto Rico and its local governments and bodies, including the Puerto Rico Public-Private Partnerships Authority (P3) to respond more effectively to the recovery efforts. Once that has occurred, the establishment of reliable and robust national capacity for disaster prevention and response manned by national experts with in-depth knowledge of Puerto Rico and conversant in planning and managing natural disasters will be necessary. This Public-Private Sector Partnership, if guided well and given the necessary support and cooperation, is likely to open a new avenue for pulling Puerto Rico out of its devastation and crisis and embark on the path to full recovery, reconstruction, development and prosperity.

Thanks for sharing !

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