In addition to the disappointingly sluggish nature of federal relief efforts in general, it is clear that the timeline for recovery on the mainland is markedly different from that of a U.S. territory. At this point there is no concealing the double standard.
Three months after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, more than 47,000 flood victims continue to live in hotels. Tens of thousands more are living with relatives, in barely habitable homes, or scraping by with other arrangements.
Local Houston officials estimate that Harvey destroyed or damaged more than 311,000 individual housing units — a whopping third of Houston’s housing stock. That’s a lot of people in need of temporary or altogether new housing all at the same time. When you consider those in need as a result of the subsequent hurricanes Irma and Maria and the western wildfires, a lot of Americans need help.
Upwards of 887,000 people have requested financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as a result of Harvey. FEMA has approved fewer than half of those applications.
As of November 11, nearly 70,000 people were staying in hotels paid for by FEMA, only a fraction of those affected by the storm and in need of assistance at the time. That number has since dropped to approximately 47,000.
While those receiving such aid from FEMA are certainly the lucky ones, unplanned and seemingly unending hotel life is anything but glamorous. As children coming “home” from school filed into one of many FEMA hotels, displaced resident Stephanie Hernandez told the Houston Chronicle, “The fact that you’re displaced, not just relaxing here, it kind of makes you feel like you don’t fit the environment.”
In late September, 30 days after the disaster struck, FEMA boasted of its recovery efforts after the historic storm and shared this handy infographic (pictured right) as proof.
During the first 30 days, more than $1.5 billion in federal funds were paid to Texans and 270,916 Texas households received temporary housing, basic repairs, and funds for other essential needs.
While FEMA boasts of its good deeds, hurricane victims in Houston continue to share a much different picture. Shortly after FEMA’s statistics were released, journalist Abby Martin visited the city to get a firsthand look at the damage and to speak with victims about their experiences during and after the catastrophic flooding. In interviews with local residents, Martin discovered that, at the time, many were waiting on both FEMA and the Red Cross. Others were denied assistance despite their homes and property having been destroyed or severely damaged, with some residents claiming that flood victims were losing their jobs while waiting on FEMA.
Shockingly not a single resident of the community Martin visited had received any assistance or reimbursement from FEMA.
Watch | After Hurricane Harvey, Abandoned Community Takes Charge
A different picture in Puerto Rico
As frustrating as the post-Harvey experience may have been for some of its victims, the post-Maria experience was, on the whole, fraught with enormously greater perils for Puerto Ricans. In part this was due to the greater and more comprehensive destruction, but in at least as large part to the different approaches taken by FEMA, and the U.S. government generally, to aiding recovery from the two disasters.
Between 80 and 90 percent of homes were completely destroyed in the hardest hit areas of the U.S. territory. FEMA estimates that, on an island of almost 3.5 million people, 70,000 homes were completely destroyed — while severely damaged infrastructure resulted in an inability to travel, make phone calls, or access the internet. Others claim this estimate to be far too low, factoring in inability — or in some cases a skeptical unwillingness, born of experience — to contact the agency.
Two months after Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on the island, many Puerto Ricans remain without electricity, after power was completely wiped out for weeks. In fact, some Puerto Ricans were without power even before Maria hit, in the wake of Hurricane Irma’s glancing blow. So what has FEMA done for these Americans?
There is no fancy FEMA infographic, as shown above for Houston, boasting of the already accomplished recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. In fact there is no data at all in FEMA’s most recent news release about the island. Whereas FEMA shared data only one month after Harvey hit Houston, two months after Maria hit Puerto Rico the agency communicates in a markedly different tone, detailing only the recovery efforts that will take place in the future.
FEMA’s presence on the island has contrasted sharply with its work in Houston. Residents were disappointed and confused in October as the agency provided the equivalent of junk food to thousands of Puerto Ricans, passed off as a healthy and balanced meal. Many took to social media to express their rage.
These are the White House approved "meals" FEMA reportedly is handing out in Puerto Rico…Vienna sausages, a Nutrigrain bar & f'n Skittles. pic.twitter.com/fyViKthg7W
— Josh Sánchez (@jnsanchez) October 12, 2017
While FEMA claims the meals comply with the agency’s strict nutritional standards and that the foods supplied are equivalent to those used in other disaster zones, residents, including the mayor of San Juan, are unimpressed.
While food is an obvious necessity, on an island where the vast majority of homes in the hardest hit areas were completely destroyed, housing is a necessity as well. As shown above, thousands of Houstonians have been able to secure temporary housing paid for by FEMA as a result of Harvey. On its website, the agency details that it will provide funds to Maria survivors who will then be responsible for using those funds to find rental resources of their choosing. On an island with damaged and crumbling infrastructure, on an island where thousands remain without power, this feat is much easier in theory than in practice.
If approved for Transitional Sheltering Assistance, FEMA’s hotel finder reveals only seven hotels on the island accepting hurricane victims. Two months after the disaster, the agency recently began offering victims transport to mainland hotels.
Federal rebuilding efforts are slow
Nearly 10,000 Texas families have qualified for temporary housing assistance through FEMA. As of last week, only one of those families had been able to move back into a home that was repaired through the agency’s program. As Mary Comerio, a professor of architecture specializing in disaster recovery at the University of California Berkeley, succinctly states: “We know from all these years after Katrina and Sandy that housing is very, very difficult and slow to recover. In all cases, it will be way slower than you want it to be, and it will be years, not months.”
In addition to the disappointingly sluggish nature of federal efforts in general, it is clear that the timeline for recovery on the mainland is markedly different from that of a U.S. territory. At this point there is no concealing the double standard. While FEMA may try to point fingers and put the blame on the island’s politics, all U.S. citizens deserve the same energy and attention when it comes to disaster response and recovery efforts.
Top photo | With photographs of hurricane damage on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands below them, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, left, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., attend a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on hurricane recovery, Nov. 14, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)