What is happening in Puerto Rico?
Since the storm made landfall on September 20, Hurricane Maria has wreaked havoc on the island, causing a level of widespread destruction and disorganization paralleled by few storms in American history. Almost two weeks after the storm abated, most of the island’s residents still lack access to electricity and clean water.
From a meteorological standpoint, Maria was nearly a worst-case scenario for the territory: The center of a huge, nearly Category 5 hurricane made a direct hit on Puerto Rico, lashing the island with wind and rain for longer than 30 hours. “It was as if a 50- to 60-mile-wide tornado raged across Puerto Rico, like a buzz saw,” Jeff Weber, a meteorologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, has told Vox.
Maria has many elements of a “catastrophic event,” and not just a disaster, says Tricia Wachtendorf, a professor of sociology at the University of Delaware who studies disaster relief.
Catastrophic events are rarer than disasters, and they tend to wipe out infrastructure over a large swath of land. “Most, if not all, of the built environment is destroyed” in a catastrophe, Wachtendorf told me.
“It’s very difficult to navigate the impact zone—to know which roads are open, and to know what to detour around. It’s extremely difficult to pre-position supplies, because if you have any supplies pre-positioned they might have been destroyed. You have [local] officials that are unable to take their usual roles on,” she said.
This renders Maria a different class of disaster than Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, both of which left much of the nearby infrastructure standing. In both storms, supplies that were positioned inland or in Atlanta were still available after the storms had passed.
But were the bad effects of Hurricane Maria made worse by a slow federal response? Democrats and other critics have implicated President Donald Trump’s dawdling response to the hurricane—he did not hold a Situation Room meeting on the disaster until six days after landfall—in the low quality of the relief effort. The president’s tendency to take criticisms of the effort personally has not seemed to help either.
Are these criticisms fair? And how should we even understand the Puerto Rico disaster? To help get a handle on the storm, I put together a timeline of the major events in Puerto Rico before and after Hurricane Maria made landfall. It follows below, and I’ll keep it updated in the days to come.
I’ll say straight-out: There are few obvious gaps in the federal response in the timeline. But it does make it clear that the speed and scale of the initial Maria relief effort pales next to other recent campaigns.
After a magnitude-7 earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, President Obama ordered a massive military and civilian response. As The Washington Post describes: Eight thousand troops were bound for the island within two days; 22,000 troops and 33 ships had arrived within two weeks. And five days after the quake struck, former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton joined Obama at the White House to announce the Haiti Fund, a multimillion-dollar philanthropic appeal for the foreign country.
By comparison, only about 7,200 military personnel have made it to Puerto Rico two weeks after landfall.
And while the five living former presidents added Hurricane Maria to One America Appeal, their preexisting campaign for hurricane-relief donations, five days after landfall, they have not visited the White House or gone on television. President Trump tweeted about One America Appeal once, on the day that Hurricane Irma made landfall, but that was well before Hurricane Maria formed.
This speed did not ensure Haiti had a successful recovery, and today the earthquake-relief effort is considered a failure. But the precedent suggests that the U.S. military might have responded with greater speed than it did to Maria. Unlike Haiti, Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory; unlike an earthquake, a hurricane is predictable. The National Weather Service first warned that Maria could strike the island as a “dangerous major hurricane” more than three weeks ago.
Likewise, the first public call to mobilize the USNS Comfort, the only U.S. Navy hospital ship on the East Coast, came from Hillary Clinton on Sunday, September 24, four days after landfall.
The Comfort was not deployed until Tuesday, September 26, six days after landfall; did not leave port until Thursday, September 28, more than a week after landfall; and did not reach Puerto Rico until Tuesday, October 3, 11 days after Maria hit the island. A Pentagon official has told The Washington Post that the Navy considered sending the Comfort before the storm but decided Puerto Rican ports could not immediately handle a ship that large.
Below is a timeline of the events of Hurricane Maria and its aftermath.
Wednesday, September 6
The eye of Hurricane Irma, then a powerful Category 5 storm, skirts north of San Juan. Puerto Rico experiences a deluge and 100-mile-per-hour gusts, but it avoids the worst of the storm’s effects.
Irma kills four people. It cuts off power to about two-thirds of the island’s electricity customers, and about 34 percent of its population loses access to clean water.
Wednesday, September 13—Seven days before landfall
A trough of low pressure, moving west to east, develops in the tropical Atlantic. The National Hurricane Center believes it will strengthen in the days to come, as there’s plenty of ocean heat for the cyclone to suck up, and little wind to tear it apart.
Saturday, September 16—Four days before landfall
The trough is still in the open ocean, several hundred miles east of the Carribbean’s Windward Islands. But it has begun to form convective bands around its center, and its central pressure has continued to fall.
The National Hurricane Center anticipates that it will become some kind of tropical storm. Starting this season, the NHC is allowed to issue forecasts for tropical cyclones even if they haven’t yet formed by allotting them a number and warning of a “potential tropical cyclone.”
At 11 a.m., the center dubs the storm “Potential Tropical Cyclone 15” and issues its first forecast discussion.
By 5 p.m., the trough has strengthened into a tropical storm, with estimated 50-mile-per-hour winds.
The National Weather Service names it Tropical Storm Maria. John Cangialosi, the hurricane specialist on duty, warns that “Maria could also affect the British and U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico by midweek as a dangerous major hurricane.”
Sunday, September 17—Three days before landfall
The National Hurricane Center continues to watch Maria, issuing forecasts throughout the day. In the afternoon, an Air Force hurricane hunter flies into the storm and records 75-mile-per-hour wind speeds.
At 5 p.m., the National Weather Service announces that the storm is now a hurricane. Maria is “likely to affect” Puerto Rico as a “dangerous major hurricane,” warns the center. In official graphics, it suggests that the storm will make landfall near midday on Wednesday, September 20.
Monday, September 18—Two days before landfall
At 5 a.m., the National Weather Service issues the first hurricane watch for Puerto Rico. It slightly bumps up the time of the storm’s landfall, predicting a Wednesday morning arrival in Puerto Rico. The storm’s maximum wind speed is 90 miles per hour.
Over the course of the day, Hurricane Maria undergoes some of the quickest rapid intensification ever measured.
At 5 p.m., the National Weather Service issues a hurricane warning for the entirety of Puerto Rico. “Maria is developing the dreaded pinhole eye,” writes Jack Beven, a senior hurricane specialist at the NWS. Pinhole eyes are smaller and more robust than usual hurricane eyes, and they suggest that the storm is quickly strengthening. Beven again warns the storm is “an extremely dangerous major hurricane,” and adds, “it is possible that the hurricane could reach Category 5 status.”
At 8 p.m., an Air Force hurricane-hunter plane flies through Maria, recording maximum wind speeds of 160 miles per hour—meaning the hurricane has attained Category 5 strength. An hour later, Maria makes landfall in Dominica, a small island nation of more than 70,000 people. The prime minister describes “mind-boggling” destruction before the communications cut out.
Tuesday, September 19—One day before landfall
Hurricane Maria fluctuates between Category 4 and Category 5 intensity.
“It now appears likely that Maria will be at Category 5 intensity when it moves over the U. S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico,” warns Richard Pasch, a senior hurricane specialist with the National Weather Service. “Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion.”
The Puerto Rican government opens 500 schools and other buildings as shelters. The New York Times reports that 2,756 people relocate to a shelter. Locals tell the paper that they expect the central government will lose contact with residents for three days after landfall.
In a press release, the Pentagon outlines how it’s preparing for the storm. About 500 National Guard members are being called up in Puerto Rico, and 820 will be stationed in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Air National Guard will keep two Black Hawk helicopters and three C-130 transport planes in the area to assist with immediate response.
Wednesday, September 20—Landfall
Hurricane Maria makes landfall just south of Yabucoa Harbor in Puerto Rico at 6:15 a.m.
The National Weather Service observes maximum sustained winds of 155 miles per hour, making Maria the first Category 4 cyclone to hit the island since 1932. The storm is almost Category 5, defined as any tropical storm with winds 157 miles per hour or higher.
Parts of Puerto Rico see 30 inches of rain in one day, equal to the amount that Houston received over three days during Hurricane Harvey. The winds cause “tornado-like” damage over a swath of the island. They’re strong enough to destroy the National Weather Service’s observing sensors in the territory, forcing meteorologists to measure the storm entirely by satellite.
The storm knocks out power to the entire island. Much of the island’s population, including swaths of San Juan, cannot access clean water without electrical power. Local officials warn that some towns see 80 to 90 percent of their structures destroyed.
Thursday, September 21—One day after landfall
In the morning, rain from the storm continues to deluge Puerto Rico, and the National Weather Service warns of “catastrophic” flooding in the territory’s mountainous interior. Informal estimates put the storm’s death toll on the island at 10.
Ricardo Ramos, the chief executive of Puerto Rico’s public power utility, tells CNN that its entire electrical infrastructure has been “destroyed.”
President Trump tells reporters that Puerto Rico is “obliterated,” after meeting with the president of Ukraine at the United Nations in New York. He says rebuilding will begin “with great gusto.”
“Their electrical grid is destroyed,” Trump says, according to The New York Times. “It wasn’t in good shape to start off with. But their electrical grid is totally destroyed. And so many other things.”
President Trump issues a state of emergency for Puerto Rico. He calls local officials on the island and pledges to help, The Washington Post reports. That night, he travels to his golf club in New Jersey for the weekend.
Friday, September 22—Two days after landfall
Puerto Rican officials warn that restoring power to the island could take six to eight months.
The airport in San Juan reopens to military traffic, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
President Trump meets with a handful of Cabinet officials to discuss his new entry ban, which restricts citizens of eight countries from entering the United States. At the meeting, he speaks briefly about Puerto Rico with acting Homeland Security secretary Elaine Duke, according to The Washington Post.
In the evening, President Trump holds a political rally in Alabama to promote Luther Strange, a candidate in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The president says that NFL owners should fire players who protest on the field, which dominates headlines that weekend. He does not mention Puerto Rico during this speech. He returns to New Jersey that night.
Saturday, September 23—Three days after landfall
The main port in San Juan reopens. “1.6 million gallons of water, 23,000 cots, [and] dozens of generators” arrive on 11 ships, according to the Associated Press.
In news reports, it becomes clear that the island’s entire communications infrastructure has been knocked out. Eighty-five percent of the island’s 1,600 cell towers don’t work, and neither do the vast majority of internet and telephone lines, the AP reports.
The Puerto Rican government warns that Guajataca Dam, in the territory’s northwest, could fail at any moment after getting walloped by the storm. It begins evacuating the 70,000 people who live nearby. The 90-year-old dam had not been inspected since 2013.
Sunday, September 24—Four days after landfall
Vice President Mike Pence talks on the phone with Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in the House of Representatives. It is the only reported communication between a Puerto Rican leader and the president or vice president during the weekend.
In a tweet, Hillary Clinton calls on the president and Defense Secretary James Mattis to send the U.S. Navy, including the hospital ship USNS Comfort, to Puerto Rico immediately. “These are American citizens,” she says.
Monday, September 25—Five days after landfall
The first Trump administration officials visit Puerto Rico to survey the damage. They include Brock Long, the administrator of the Federal Emergency-Management Agency, and Tom Bossert, a homeland-security adviser. They return to Washington that night.
“We need to prevent a humanitarian crisis occurring in America. Puerto Rico is part of the United States. We need to take swift action,” Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rosselló tells CNN.
The Pentagon issues its first written update entirely about the effort in Puerto Rico. It says 2,600 Department of Defense employees are in the territory or the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Eight members of the House of Representatives write to President Trump, asking him to waive the Jones Act for ports in Puerto Rico for one year. The Jones Act is a 1920 law that requires ships carrying goods between U.S. ports to fly the American flag, which means they must abide by U.S. laws. It also requires these ships to be built in the United States and owned and operated by American citizens. The government temporarily waived the Jones Act with little fanfare for ports along the Gulf Coast after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma struck.
At 8:45 p.m., the president tweets about Puerto Rico for the first time since the storm made landfall. The Washington Post reports that he had just come from dinner with conservative leaders in Congress.
“Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble,” he says in a series of posts. “It’s [sic] old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top priorities—and doing well.”
Tuesday, September 26—Six days after landfall
Forty-four percent of Puerto Rico’s population, or 1.53 million people, lack access to drinking water, the Pentagon says. Power remains out across most of the island.
Fifteen percent of the island’s 69 hospitals are open. Eight airports and eight seaports are open across Puerto Rico, though some are only operating during the day.
Trump holds his first coordinating meeting in the Situation Room about the response in Puerto Rico, according to a Washington Post report. He talks to Governor Rosselló again, and talks to Congresswoman González-Colón for the first time.
“There will be a humanitarian crisis. There will be a massive exodus to the United States,” says Roselló. He implores Congress to pass an immediate bill offering help commensurate to the scale of the disaster.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers inspects the Guajataca Dam and finds that it is intact but will need reinforcement.
The Florida senators—Marco Rubio, a Republican, and Bill Nelson, a Democrat—write to Trump urging “additional federal assistance” for Puerto Rico. “This is a life-threatening situation,” they write, warning of “millions without power, communications, and water.”
Adam Smith, the ranking Democratic member on the House Armed Services Committee, says that the Pentagon must establish a “coordinated military effort” led by a three-star general. The Department of Defense has taken similar steps after Hurricane Katrina and after Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in 2013.
The U.S. Navy announces the deployment of the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship based in Norfolk, Virginia, to Puerto Rico. FEMA warns that the Comfort must take on emergency staff, and that it may take another week for the ship to be ready to leave port.
The Pentagon also announces it’s tasking nine additional cargo aircraft with Puerto Rican relief, and seven additional cargo planes with disaster response in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Wednesday, September 27—Seven days after landfall
The Puerto Rican government announces that 16 people have lost their lives in the storm. It does not update the official death toll for another six days.
At the White House, President Trump is asked if he is planning to waive the Jones Act for Puerto Rico. “We’re thinking about that,” he tells reporters. “But we have a lot of shippers and a lot of people that work in the shipping industry that don’t want the Jones Act lifted, and we have a lot of ships out there right now.”
The Port of Mayagüez reopens for daylight operations, says the Pentagon.
Thursday, September 28—Eight days after landfall
The death toll from Hurricane Maria is likely far higher than what has been declared, report the Miami Herald and the Center for Investigative Journalism. Omaya Sosa Pascual, a reporter with the center, contacts the few functioning hospitals and morgues and finds dozens more fatalities than the widely reported figure of 16.
Seventy percent of Puerto Rico’s hospitals are not functioning, the Herald also reports. Official death tolls do not account for patients who have already died from not receiving dialysis or oxygen.
President Trump waives the Jones Act for 10 days, allowing ships not flying the U.S. flag to access the island’s ports.
More than 10,000 shipping containers full of food and supplies lay stranded in the Port of San Juan, reports CNN. They can’t be shipped to the island’s interior due to a lack of fuel, labor, and working roads. Governor Roselló says that only about 20 percent of Puerto Rico’s truckers have been able to work.
Speaking at the White House, acting DHS secretary Elaine Duke tells reporters she is “very satisfied” with the Puerto Rico response.
“I know it is really a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths that have taken place in such a devastating hurricane,” she says.
The Department of Defense charges Jeffrey Buchanan, a three-star general with the U.S. Army, with leading the U.S. military’s response in Puerto Rico. He arrives on the island the same day. The military estimates 160 million meals will be needed over the next 30 days.
“It didn’t require a three-star general eight days ago,” says Bossert, Trump’s homeland-security adviser, explaining why no military leader had been appointed before.
The USNS Comfort departs its base in Norfolk, Virginia. CNN reports that the hospital ship is expected to arrive “in the middle of next week.”
Friday, September 29—Nine days after landfall
FEMA offers a different assessment of the island’s 69 hospitals: “One is fully operational, 55 are partially operational, five are closed, and the status of eight is as yet unknown,” it says in a statement.
The Department of Defense also says it’s operating 10 regional supply-distribution centers across the territory, which supply “food, water, and other commodities.”
Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, responds to acting DHS secretary Duke saying the response is a “good news story.”
“Well maybe from where she's standing, it’s a good news story,” Cruz tells CNN. “When you're drinking from a creek, it's not a good news story. When you don't have food for a baby, it’s not a good news story. When you have to pull people down from buildings—I’m sorry, that really upsets me and frustrates me.”
She adds that Duke’s comments were not in line with the support the White House has otherwise offered. At a press conference later that day, Cruz tells reporters: “We are dying here. If we don’t get the food and the water into the people’s hands, we are going to see something close to a genocide.”
Saturday, September 30—10 days after landfall
Fifty-five percent of Puerto Rico, or about 1.87 million people, don’t have clean drinking water, the Pentagon says. This is an increase from numbers provided earlier in the week, meaning that either 300,000 people lost clean water through the week or initial estimates were off.
The Pentagon also says that about half of grocery and big-box stores have re-opened across the territory, as have about 851 gas stations.
President Trump grabs onto Mayor Cruz’s criticism from the day before. He tweets about the politics of Puerto Rico more than half a dozen times, criticizing her and accusing the press of attacking first responders and the military.
“The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump,” he writes. “Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job.”
Sunday, October 1—11 days after landfall
More than a thousand service members arrive on the island, boosting its number of Pentagon personnel from 4,600 to about 6,400, the Department of Defense says.
About 8,800 people are in refugee shelters, says Governor Roselló in a news conference. He also tells reporters that 36 percent of Puerto Ricans have regained cell service.
The federal government will boost the number of regional supply-distribution centers from 11 to “25 or more,” he also says.
President Trump continues tweeting about the success of the recovery effort. “We have done a great job with the almost impossible situation in Puerto Rico. Outside of the Fake News or politically motivated ingrates, people are now starting to recognize the amazing work that has been done by FEMA and our great Military,” he says in two posts.
He also seems to imply that all buildings across the island have now been “inspected for safety,” a claim repeated by no other federal agency.
Monday, October 2—12 days after landfall
Hector Pesquera, Puerto Rico’s secretary of public safety, admits to the Center for Investigative Journalism that death tolls are likely much higher than official estimates.
“I believe there are more dead, but I don’t have reports telling me, [for example], eight died in Mayagüez because they lacked oxygen, that four died in San Pablo because they did not receive dialysis,” he says.
The Defense Department reports that 7,200 military personnel are working on the island. But the Pentagon revises down its estimate of reopened gas stations, saying “more than 759” of 1,120 are selling gas again. It does not provide a reason for the change. It also reports that about 65 percent of grocery and big-box stores are open.
About 12 percent of cell towers on the island are operational again, says the Federal Communications Commission. Puerto Rican officials estimate that only about 40 percent of residents have any kind of internet or cell service.
Tuesday, October 3—13 days after landfall
President Trump visits Puerto Rico for the first time since Maria made landfall. During the visit, he tosses relief supplies, including paper towels and toilet paper, into a crowd of onlookers.
“I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack,” he says at a news conference with the territory’s leaders. “That’s fine. We saved a lot of lives.”
He also compares Maria favorably to Hurricane Katrina. “Every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here and what is your death count? Sixteen people, versus in the thousands,” he says. “You can be very proud.” The comment is factually incorrect in several ways, as my colleague David Graham notes.
After his visit, Governor Roselló issues the first update to the island’s official death toll in six days. Hurricane Maria killed 34 people in Puerto Rico, he says.