Essays · Work

Overseeing Disaster Response

I posted the below open letter to FEMA Administrator Long on my personal website. As some of you know, my day job involves emergency management. the recent statements related to the response in Puerto Rico by both Administrator Long and the current President are deeply offensive to me. Although I did not frame the letter in the usual “how not to be a jerk” way, I think it belongs on this site as well.

Dear Mr. Long:

I’m writing to you today as a private citizen of the United States who has spent nearly a dozen years working in emergency management. I have been deeply troubled by what I see as a dismissive attitude from both FEMA and the current President’s administration about response and recovery in Puerto Rico in the wake of the devastation brought by Hurricane Maria. My concerns are threefold:

  • Damaging disrespect of locals that puts response at risk
  • Suggesting that people of Puerto Rico are making unreasonable demands
  • Threatening to leave your fellow citizens well before the work of recovery has concluded

“Filtering” Locals
In an interview with ABC on October 8, you stated that you “filtered out the mayor a long time ago. We don’t have time for the political noise.” I agree that there is no time for political noise, but as someone with your background should know, the information you need comes from the locals. The locals need to be the driving force in response and recovery. They know their people. They know their needs. FEMA is there to support and respond to those needs; how can a response organization make progress when leadership has “filtered out” information from the very people you need to be helping?

This may feel political to you, and I understand that. We all work in government. Local officials are elected. But your remarks don’t seem to be speaking of politics in that way; you seem to be suggesting that it is okay to “filter” out the pleas for help from someone who might not share the administration’s political views. It might hurt to hear people say you aren’t doing enough, but that’s the job. As an emergency manager, I expect a higher level of integrity from someone in my profession.

Response Support
This administration has suggested that Puerto Ricans are making unreasonable demands of FEMA. The current President said recently that the people of Puerto Rico “want everything done for them.” I realize you are not responsible for your boss’s twitter rants, but I am asking that you make it clear to the people of Puerto Rico that FEMA understands their needs and that Puerto Ricans will be cared for in the same manner we expect all of our citizens facing such destruction will be cared for.

Abandoning Puerto Rico
Yesterday, the current President said that FEMA cannot be in Puerto Rico “forever.” It has only been three weeks. FEMA is still in Texas. FEMA is still in Florida. As an emergency manager, I know that we start planning for demobilization as soon as we activate, but this is different. This is someone threatening to abandon the citizens he is meant to support. I urge you to speak out against this type of language.

We all know that disasters are challenging. Catastrophes even more so. But with only 2/3 of Puerto Ricans having access to clean water and less than 10% having power, you must know that FEMA’s response and recovery work is nowhere near done.

By making insensitive statements and not speaking out against the current President’s harmful rhetoric, you are doing our profession a grave disservice.

The citizens in Puerto Rico deserve better.

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