Post-hurricane Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico. Part 2. Three weeks later…

LOTRW last offered a look at recovery from hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria on September 29. Time for another quick look! Three weeks further on, selected vignettes hint at where things now stand:

In Houston, analysis suggests Harvey recovery might take longer than Katrina:

BuildFax, an Austin-based data analytics firm for the residential and commercial real estate industry, said it could take three months to clean up all the debris related to Harvey and 20 months recover and remodel damaged properties.

“With recovery from Hurricane Harvey estimated to cost up to $180 billion and Hurricane Irma expected to cost about $100 billion, the primary recovery periods for these two storms could be well above the average for the three costliest storms in recent U.S. history,” the report said.

In Florida, emphasis is on rebuilding the multi-billion-dollar tourist trade as quickly as possible, but the state struggles to restore the housing and infrastructure to support the needed labor force:

Some residents call it the Irmanator:

The roughly 97-mile stretch between Key Largo and Key West that traces the devastating path of Hurricane Irma, as she blasted through the Lower Keys and then seemed to grow bored with destruction further north.

 Get past it and you’ll reach Key West, the tourism heartbeat of the Florida Keys, where damage is minimal, cruise ships are docking and tourists are trickling back in. But the drive down the Overseas Highway is no Key West. It’s a testament to Irma’s wrath, the breadth of her impact and the challenges that lie ahead for an island chain whose livelihood depends on cooperative weather.

At the entrance to Key Largo early this month, a white tarp draped over a Scuba Outlet truck tells Keys visitors the region is “OPEN,” an “Irma Survivor” and “#ConchStrong.” Near Tavernier, hand-less mannequins wearing Starbucks aprons and green hula skirts gesture to visitors that the coffee shop, too, is open. Debris piles, some with parts of boats or a chunk of a jacuzzi, are a roadside fixture. By Big Pine Key, the piles turn into mountains of detritus, looming at least 20 feet high and extending half a mile down the road.

The Keys hasn’t seen anything like Irma in modern memory, said Jim Bernardin, owner of Pines & Palms Islamorada Resort.

 “This one …is a different storm because the economic engine of The Keys is tourism and it’s just like getting knocked out by Muhammad Ali,” Bernardin said. “But we woke up.”

 Now the Keys is facing the mammoth task of regaining its former fitness as a robust tourism attraction. It’s crucial that it does: Tourism is a $2.7 billion industry in Monroe County, responsible for 60 percent of all spending and 54 percent of all jobs, according to the county’s Tourist Development Council.

As for Puerto Rico, as recently as October 18, TIME magazine reported:

 On Sept. 20 Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico, leaving at least 48 people dead and decimating the island’s already crumbling power grid.

 Texas and Miami were also ravaged by severe weather, in the two hurricanes that preceded Maria, but relief efforts there quickly restored basic infrastructure. One month on, however, much of the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico still looks the way it did immediately after the hurricane receded northwest towards the Dominican Republic.

Here is a by-the-numbers account of how things on the island currently stand.


  • More than a third of Puerto Rican households, or about 1 million people, still lack running water according to CNN.
  • FEMA says it has distributed 23.6 million liters (6.2 million gallons) of bottled and bulk water in Puerto Rico. That figure includes water for hospitals and dialysis centers
  • These deliveries equate to only 9% of the island’s drinking water requirement, going by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) assessment that each person needs at least 2.5 liters (2/3 of a gallon) per day. Some residents are so desperate for drinking water they have broken into polluted wells at industrial waste sites.
  • The shortfall is far greater when you consider the WHO also recommends 15 liters per person per day for basic cooking and hygiene needs. Dirty water ups the risk of diseases like cholera and at least one person has died as a result of being unable to get to dialysis treatment on time, CNN reports.
  • Some 86% of grocery stores have re-opened. But they are not necessarily stocked.
  • FEMA says 60,000 homes need roofing help. It has delivered 38,000 tarps.

 Power and Personnel

  • Less than 20% of Puerto Rico’s power grid has been restored and around 3 million people are still without power, says CNN
  • The news broadcaster adds that 75% of antennas are down so even those able to charge phones are unlikely to have cellular service.
  • All of the island’s hospitals are now up and running, with most using back-up systems, but only a quarter are being supplied with power from the grid, says Axios
  • According to CNN, FEMA has deployed 1,700 personnel in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which were also ravaged by Hurricane Maria. That’s 900 less that the 2,600 FEMA personnel reportedly still in Texas and Florida, but the agency told CNN that around 20,000 other federal staff and military have been deployed in response to Maria.
  • Thousands of people have donated money or volunteered to help Puerto Rico. Among them, celebrity chef José Andrés says he’s serving 100,000 meals a day on the island.

 Meanwhile, from the Washington Post, Congress and the American public debate the cost and the allocation of recovery funding for the three affected areas:

The divide in [a Houston] household is one playing out across the country, as those who voted for the president debate how much support the federal government should give Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory without a voting member of Congress that is not allowed to vote in presidential elections.

 Some supporters of the president, like [one spouse], agree with Trump that Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was frail before the storm; that the crisis was worsened by a lack of leadership there; and that the federal government should limit its involvement in the rebuilding effort, which will likely cost billions of dollars. But others, like [the other spouse], are appalled by how the president talks about Puerto Rico and say the United States has a moral obligation to take care of its citizens.

 A survey released last week by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that a majority of Americans believe that the federal government has been too slow to respond in Puerto Rico and that the island still isn’t getting the help it needs. But the results largely broke along party lines: While nearly three-quarters of Democrats said the federal government isn’t doing enough, almost three-quarters of Republicans said it is.

 There’s more; for example, one House bill contains $5B in loans for Puerto Rico, already mired in $74B of unpayable debt.

But these excerpts provide a flavor. There’s been some progress… but the greatest progress has been this: once upon a time (it seems oh-so-long-ago) we spoke glibly about “recovery,” but now we recognize it for the truly daunting challenge it is. Once we spoke of a “return to normal,” but as time goes by we realize we’re going to be settling for some “new normal.” And today the relevant Congressional and national discussion is going on in the background, moved off the front pages by the Las Vegas shootings, the California vineyard fires, the present state-of-play of Congressional action on budgets and tax policy, #MeToo, presidential calls to bereaved military families, the national anthem at NFL games, and other issues. Some of these latter are truly important, perhaps defining for our generation; others less so. But all are “more current.” Our ADHD culture has moved on.

Fewer headlines, confined to local markets, would be okay if the recoveries were rocketing along. But they’re not. Fact is, we might be able to make faster progress toward better outcomes by framing the three “recoveries” differently.

More on that in Part 3.

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One Response to Post-hurricane Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico. Part 2. Three weeks later…

  1. Bill Read says:

    And then there are the islands in the Caribbean from Barbuda, Dominica, and St Martin westward through the Virgin Islands that were decimated far worse than the Keys, but like the Keys are heavily dependent on tourism for their economy. They seem to have fallen out of sight on the news. What little I can find suggests only slow progress has been made in recovery on most of these islands because the damage was so severe and the amount of support needed to make more rapid improvements does not exist.

    Usually I have the sense that initial estimates of cost of disasters run too high. Not this time – I suspect we will find they are too low. I also get the sense from post Harvey meetings I have attended that the consensus is that the loss numbers will be too high for Washington to stomach thus the Federal recovery $$$ response will be less percentage wise than in past disasters for any one of these storms…hence the piece meal funding authorized so far.

    I happen to live in the Harvey disaster area, though was very fortunate to have not flooded. A number of friends not so lucky and are in various stages of recovery and rebuilding. From what I see happening here in the Houston area, recovery will mostly be to restore everything to the pre-Harvey condition with only modest mitigation – it just costs so much to fix what we have in harms way down here (and most already heavily developed coastal areas, for that matter). Less than 30% of the flooded properties had flood insurance, so people have to secure loans to rebuild. The added cost of elevating a slab house (minimum $100,000) is out of reach for most home owners. Buyouts have been proposed but only for the homes that have severe repetitive loss, which only number in the low thousands of homes. There is only so much engineering that can be done to increase drainage for neighborhoods and reduce flood levels on the bayous given the geography we have built on, and even that small amount is costly to do. New normal will mean hundreds of thousands of people sweating out every heavy rain event wondering if “oh no, here we go again”. There will likely be a huge increase in purchases of flood insurance, but at what cost? Oh, and by the way, Congress needs to reauthorize the NFIP…

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