Puerto Rico is working on building emergency management capabilities that would help the Caribbean island withstand future disasters, the head of the U.S. government agency that oversees disaster response said Wednesday, two days before the official start to the Atlantic hurricane season.
Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, spoke at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Long said FEMA has been bolstering its resources in the U.S. territory, including hiring roughly 1,600 residents to build local disaster response systems that did not exist before Hurricane Maria hit the island in September, causing an estimated $100 billion in damage.
Even in an unprecedented year with multiple hurricanes and other natural disasters requiring federal response, Puerto Rico presented a challenge for FEMA because its government lacked an organized response structure, Long said.
In Texas and Florida, which were hit last year by hurricanes Harvey and Irma, state and local response efforts were already in place and running smoothly, Long said.
"When it comes to Puerto Rico, unfortunately, what we face is a very fragile and broken infrastructure that decayed over multiple decades. For example, a large portion of the power grid never worked before Irma and Maria," he said.
Long said FEMA was working with the island's governor to "build a backbone" of staff and resources to make Puerto Rico and its economy more resilient.
Long said he had not read a new study contending that many more deaths than normal occurred in Puerto Rico in the three months after Maria. The study was led by Harvard University researchers, who surveyed a small sample of neighborhoods and then estimated that up to 4,600 more deaths than usual occurred compared with the same period in 2016.
FEMA does not track hurricane-related deaths. Long said local agencies provide that data and there often is a discrepancy between the number of deaths directly attributed to a storm and deaths indirectly linked to one.
In its analysis of Maria, the national hurricane center said the official number of deaths in Puerto Rico stood at 65, though the death toll was "highly uncertain." That report also said "hundreds of additional indirect deaths in Puerto Rico may eventually be attributed to Maria's aftermath pending the results of an official government review."
"Everything with Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria was very complex," Long said.
At the hurricane center, Long met with FEMA employees, forecasters and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who said hurricane preparedness begins with individuals and their local communities.