Recovery Redux Plus a Footnote from June

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

We all know when a disaster begins: the earth moves, or the winds blow, waters rise or flames burst out of control. What continues to frustrate me is that we seldom grasp as a nation when a disaster is over.

One might think, for example that Hurricane Maria was all over shortly after it passed through Puerto Rico. The “official” death toll, 64, led the president and others to comment that it could have been a lot worse.

It apparently was a lot worse. A recent Harvard study conservatively suggests that more than 4600 people may have died during or in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria’s assault on Puerto Rico. Many succumbed because of the destruction of communications, impassibility of roads, loss of power and disruptions to the supply chain that delivers food, medical supplies, and other necessary items. For those on the fringes of good health, those conditions became life-threatening.

Why the disparity between the official fatality count and reality? FEMA, in Puerto Rico, as in other similar events probably established a set date beyond which disaster related impacts “don’t count”. Those “other” deaths, however, underscore the point that the impacts of natural disasters linger long after the immediate event, thus meriting extended attention from government.

Recently, survivors of Maria who relocated to the United States from Puerto Rico were informed that significant housing support from FEMA will cease by the end of June. So, from living in hotels and other locations since their arrival they must now find shelter from the charitable organizations within local jurisdictions where they have taken refuge. Even if they receive that, they’re still not home. And the FEMA effort to scale back its support for the recovery may yield a finding that many damaged homes are indeed “serviceable” and encourage those families to return to a less than desirable situation. This is undergoing a court challenge as I write this, but a series of court-ordered extensions of this assistance will not solve the long-term problem.

FEMA is not all powerful nor are those working on Maria heartless: I know they are dedicated and struggling to resolve the many complex challenges confronting them, from all sides. Congress and Administrations look at disaster costs very differently in their rear view mirrors- empathy is diluted as costs rise, and the cameras go away to the next crisis.In a future blog I will discuss how we are approaching recovery in the wrong way, virtually everywhere.

More climate-driven disasters of similar scope are likely. We must find a better way to assist affected communities, states, territories to restore and reshape their lives.

Footnote to June Blog: Several people commented privately about my “Stay or Go” post last month: I’m always gratified to learn that someone is reading and reacting to my thoughts. Although I encourage readers to use the Center’s comments section to share their reactions and views, if a private reaction, even criticism is tempting please feel free to contact me at Regarding the “stay or go” decision for border agents, what must be going through the minds of those assigned to pull kids away from their parents on our Southern border? The Nuremberg defense kind of failed, as I recall.

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