“If you’re one of the victims, every hour and every day is too long,” said James Lee Witt, who directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Bill Clinton. But Witt said he expects aid to begin dispersing much faster soon: “Over the next few days, you’ll see a turn.”
It may also be that with a few extra days’ perspective, the situation in Puerto Rico will prove even graver than it looks, and the federal response will fall far short of what's necessary. As Trump and Rosselló have both pointed out, the storm is unprecedented for Puerto Rico.
After a hurricane, emergency managers have to both bring resources to the site, and then distribute them to people who need them. In the case of Puerto Rico, both parts of that are challenging. First, its location has slowed the initial response. “We’ve gotten A-pluses on Texas and in Florida, and we will also on Puerto Rico,” Trump said Tuesday. “But the difference is this is an island sitting in the middle of an ocean.” Second, the level of devastation is such that moving fuel, water, and food around the island is challenging.
One of the guiding concepts of disaster relief in recent years is that neighbors are the real first responders. In a large event like a hurricane, there are never enough EMTs, police, firefighters, and medical personnel in a place, and it’s impossible to bring them in immediately. The essential role played by the Cajun Navy and other good samaritans in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey demonstrated both the importance of ordinary citizens and the ways in which governmental response is delayed and limited even when running as designed.
There are some signs that the federal relief effort is starting to achieve its first goal of bringing resources to the scene. In a release Monday, FEMA noted some of what it has deployed: 330 staffers from the Department of Health and Human Services; Army Corps of Engineers staff; EPA officials; and a range of Department of Defense assistance, including helicopters and planes. A depot has been established to gather goods. A FEMA spokeswoman tweeted Tuesday afternoon that the agency had provided 4 million meals, 6 million liters of water, and thousands of tarps and rolls of roof sheeting.
Getting those people where they need to be, and transporting lifesaving supplies from depots to where they’re needed, though, remains difficult. On Morning Joe Tuesday, Rosselló said, “We need more help with people being deployed so that we can get logistical support elsewhere, and we need Congress to take action so that we can have an aid package that is real for the American citizens that live in Puerto Rico.” For example, the governor said that there is fuel in Puerto Rico, but the government has struggled to dispere it to where it’s needed.
Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, tweeted Tuesday morning that there were plenty of “boots on the ground,” but they weren’t working at full capacity. On CBS News, she said there were HHS workers who were eager to help, “but couldn’t get marching orders.”