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FEMA Director Brags About Ignoring the San Juan Mayor’s Pleas

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is one area of the government that should be above politics. FEMA is tasked with helping American cities and states prepare for natural disasters and recover from them after they cause devastation. Playing politics with FEMA quite literally endangers the lives of every American, as each of us is protected by FEMA in one way or another (e.g. FEMA helps gulf states prepare for hurricanes and western states deal with wildfires).

Unfortunately, Brock Long, the current FEMA director is openly letting political considerations impact his agency’s handling of the Puerto Rico recovery effort in the aftermath of the recent hurricanes. During an interview with ABC news last Sunday, Long was asked by Martha Raddatz about the San Juan Mayor’s requests for more water, her concern over the power failures at the San Juan Hospital and the fact that FEMA hasn’t responded to her requests for support.

In response to Raddatz’s question, Long answered “We filtered out the mayor a long time ago; we don’t have time for the political noise. The bottom line is that we are making progress every day in conjunction with the governor.”

Long’s statement unintentionally answers Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz’s question about why her concerns weren’t being answered: FEMA’s director has ordered that she be ignored and that her concerns are simply “political noise” rather than the important on the ground information that they truly are. Given his statements, it appears that this an official policy decision by leaders at his agency (if not himself) and it begs the question, who else on the ground is being intentionally ignored?

Mayor Cruz is very involved in the local recovery efforts and has been from the start, so the idea that she is simply pestering FEMA as part of some political game is absurd. In the direct aftermath of the storm, she helped search for trapped survivors while wading through chest-high water with a bullhorn (see picture below, shared from her twitter account; no citation for who took the picture). In the following weeks, Mayor Cruz has helped coordinate recovery and aid efforts as well as distribute supplies.

While Long is apparently still working with the Puerto Rican governor, this doesn’t actually mitigate the harm from his ignoring the mayor of San Juan. Disaster recovery efforts of this scale must be coordinated on the federal, state, and local level for them to be effective—cutting any one level out of the efforts creates glaring deficits that sabotage the efforts.

If local leaders aren’t involved in recovery efforts, local needs are not met, on the ground information doesn’t make its way up the chain of command (e.g. is there enough infrastructure to store and distribute aid), and resources cannot be efficiently allocated. State (or territory) governors have some information that can help inform recovery efforts on the local level, but they are not the best sources as their focus must be divided across multiple municipalities. It is simply impossible for them to provide the same level of focus as each municipality’s local leaders.

There is simply no excuse for FEMA’s decision to cut Mayor Cruz (and potentially other local leaders) out of the loop and dismiss their concerns. This is such bad policy that past FEMA directors have either not engaged in it, or have been unwilling to admit publicly that they have out of shame or fear of being seen as incompetent.

Author’s note: I know that Brock Long is not simply ignorant of how important local leaders are in recovery efforts, as we actually share an educational background. According to Linkedin he has a B.S. in criminal justice and a Masters of Public Administration, while I have a B.S. in political science and an MPA with a focus on disaster response. Local involvement in disaster recovery efforts is a fundamental concept that Long is certainly familiar with. Not only this, but he has worked as a regional coordinator for FEMA, which means that it was literally in his job description to represent FEMA at local trainings, conferences and workshops to prepare for hurricanes. His choice to filter out Mayor Cruz is even more inexcusable given his clear knowledge of how important local coordination is.

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