Exactly five years after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, another catastrophic storm is testing the federal government’s ability to mount a rapid response on an island exposed by its rudimentary infrastructure and vulnerability to climate change.
The Biden White House is mobilizing a surge of assistance after Hurricane Fiona unleashed torrential rains, severe flooding, mudslides and power outages. Echoes of 2017, when Maria caused more than a couple thousand deaths and left billions of dollars in damage, haunt local residents who are still in the process of rebuilding their homes. Some whose homes have been flooded may face the prospect of having to start over.
“It’s been a catastrophic rain that just won’t stop,” Robert Little, the coordinator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency on the island, told CNN’s Erin Burnett, as the government relief effort began to ramp up. “The FEMA team has been ramping up since we got the call to come here.”
The effort builds on an enhanced federal presence on the island since Maria, when the Trump administration was heavily criticized for a messy response and for applauding itself despite a tragedy that unfolded for months as technicians struggled to restore the grid. electrical. Although they often seem ignored in Washington, Puerto Ricans are US citizens who live on a US island territory and are entitled to assistance from the federal government.
Detailed storm damage assessments were still being compiled as of Tuesday morning, but some residents said the terrible flooding and mudslides were reminiscent of the devastation wrought by Maria.
The arrival of the latest hurricane was especially cruel as many Puerto Ricans have fallen on hard times since 2017, struggling through dark chapters of storms, earthquakes, the pandemic and political turmoil.
“This is devastation upon devastation,” former San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room.”
Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Monday night that while most of the damage five years ago was caused by hurricane-force winds, the problem this time is the volume of rain. But while the power grid was repaired after Maria, it hasn’t really improved, he said.
Still, Pierluisi added, “We are much better prepared now than Puerto Rico was five years ago when Hurricane Maria hit us. Just to give you an example, FEMA now has four warehouses located throughout Puerto Rico instead of one.”
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