Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and Maria recovery: addenda


Hasn’t been 24 hours since the previous LOTRW post updating the progress of the 2017 hurricane season recovery efforts, but two news items in today’s print media caught my eye.

  1. From the Washington Post comes this news: an argument is brewing about disposition of Congressionally appropriated funds for Puerto Rican recovery. Will the much-needed dollars find their way to those on the island territory struggling to rebuild their lives after Hurricane Maria’s devastation? Or will they instead be diverted to line the pockets of bondholders of Puerto Rican debt? Steven Mufson writes:

The $16 billion aid package that Congress approved for Puerto Rico as part of the spending deal this month came as a relief to the territory’s government. It also came as a relief to its bondholders.

The price of Puerto Rican commonwealth bonds has soared since Congress passed the rescue package. Though the bankrupt territory has halted interest payments on its bonds, investors — including hedge funds — drove up the price of the general obligation bond due in 2035 by 11 percent on Feb. 14. The average price of the bond Friday was 32.01 cents on the dollar, up 26 percent for the week.

The source of investors’ hopes is a new Puerto Rican fiscal plan issued Feb. 12 that sharply raised the forecasts for cash flow and long-range sustainable debt that the territory had made before Congress acted. By fiscal 2023, the government will accumulate a $2.8 billion surplus, the plan predicts.

But the stronger forecasts raised fears among some lawmakers that the federal funds — earmarked for Medicaid, housing reconstruction and other repairs after Hurricane Maria — would indirectly flow to Puerto Rico’s bondholders.

“We need to be unambiguously clear that the money Congress approved was for rebuilding Puerto Rico and to aid its citizens, not to line the pockets of Wall Street investors that bought the Island’s debt on the cheap,” Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.) said in a statement Friday. “It would be a moral outrage if money intended for Puerto Rico’s vulnerable was siphoned off to creditors and vulture funds.”

(The article provides further perspective on this issue.)

  1. And here’s a front-page story from this morning’s print edition of USA Today: Thousands of FEMA rescuers spent more time traveling, awaiting orders than on rescues. Some excerpts:

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Fire Department’s 80-person team of highly skilled rescuers crisscrossed the country last summer in a fleet of vehicles with an arsenal of tools, geared up to deal with anything hurricanes Harvey and Irma threw its way. 

The team was operating as part of the nation’s highly trained search-and-rescue force, deployed to provide assistance after natural disasters.

It spent more time traveling and awaiting orders and assignments than it did actively effecting rescues in the storm-ravaged disaster zones.

All told, the Phoenix team assisted in directly rescuing 17 people, according to department records, a fraction of the thousands of people rescued or assisted by hurricane-response efforts. It was reimbursed $3 million by the U.S. government.

It wasn’t alone in being underused.

Thousands of the country’s most highly skilled rescuers who deployed to hurricane-hit regions of Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico spent more time traveling and awaiting orders than they did rescuing residents, racking up an anticipated $92 million in reimbursement claims from the cash-strapped Federal Emergency Management Agency, The Arizona Republic has found.  

The at-times-underwhelming number of physical rescues, coupled with the costly mobilization of more than 6,000 members of FEMA’s National Urban Search and Rescue, program raises questions about how to more efficiently use the vaunted network of versatile, highly skilled first responders…

…FEMA National Urban Search and Rescue teams are the national Swiss Army knife of emergency response, able to handle anything from rescues in post-earthquake rubble to dangerous water evacuations. Interviews and records from FEMA and some of the 28 search-and-rescue teams across the country detail their responses to last summer’s onslaught of hurricanes. 

Colorado’s initial 45-member team of specially trained rescuers mobilized to a rural Texas airport, where they loaded evacuees’ bags onto awaiting planes. The team was repeatedly reassigned and staged, ending up in Florida where members searched wind-ravaged neighborhoods. 

And during its 11-day Texas deployment, records show 80 members from a Los Angeles team tasked with primary searches and rescues encountered more “animal issues” — 64 — than they did evacuations — 56. 

Delays in task assignments amid the constantly changing emergencies resulted in many rescuers driving thousands of miles across the country, only to be left to stage at military bases, where they trained and waited to use their skills.  

…Some National Urban Search and Rescue teams were exceedingly busy, like Texas task forces that rescued almost 900 people by air and ground and evacuated nearly 12,000 people, according to department records. They appear to have been some of the most active groups in what became one of the biggest mobilizations in the history of the system. 

Others, however, were far outpaced in urgent rescues by local first responders, non-governmental rescue groups and volunteers with boats, which frustrated many on the elite teams that had traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to help.

What happened during last summer’s hurricanes has some calling for the program to be improved in an era of never-ending natural disasters.  

(A quick parenthesis: astronomically high costs for evacuations are nothing new – in fact, they don’t reveal inefficiencies that need to be cleaned up so much as they reflect an inescapable reality of emergency response. For example, during and immediately following Hurricane Katrina, the Hospital Corporation of America spent tens of millions of dollars to evacuate several hundreds of patients from the Tulane University hospital and a few other HCA facilities affected by the storm. The HCA Annual Report of that year tells the tale, and makes interesting reading.)

Bill Read’s comment on the previous LOTRW post sums this up. After noting that recovery is the Achilles heel of disaster, and documenting how the Hurricane Harvey recovery looks on the ground, he closes:

The sheer magnitude of the disaster here has added considerably to the long drawn out recovery. Time will tell if proposed policy to build resilience into the area reaches fruition. Plenty of support for the good ideas but when it comes to paying for the changes support dwindles. As many floods as we have had over the past two decades, I would hope people realize we cannot go forward business as usual.

Well said, Bill! “Recovery” after disaster is an oxymoron. No one affected is ever made whole. As today’s news items make clear, emergency response and recovery share this in common: of necessity, both are chaotic, inefficient, messy, flawed – and expensive beyond imagining. As Americans, we live on some of the most hazardous real estate on the planet. We can and should do more to build community resilience – which is generally far less costly than the alternative.

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One Response to Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and Maria recovery: addenda

  1. Bill:-

    Re “recovery:”
    They’re not recovering from the last one; they’re preparing for the next.

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