Ph.D. Spotlight: “The Island of Lies”: A Qualitative Inquiry of the Disaster Response and Recovery in Puerto Rico Post-Maria

Hurricane Maria made landfall on the island of Puerto Rico in the early hours of September 20th, 2017. Hurricane Maria was a storm of unprecedented strength and a devastating blow to the island of Puerto Rico as the 5th strongest storm to ever hit United States territory. The unparalleled level of devastation combined with a slow-moving response and recovery created an environment of inefficiency and vulnerability on the island. This study aims to identify the events before, during, and after the storm that contributed to such a disastrous response and recovery.

After already dealing with a financial crisis for the past decade, the island was wholly unprepared for such a catastrophic event. The island’s critical infrastructure was destroyed along with thousands of homes. Hurricanes are nothing new for Puerto Ricans; almost every year the island is hit by at least one storm. However, the last storms to come close to mimicking Maria’s damage was almost two decades ago when Hurricane Georges hit in 1998 and Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Unfortunately, the lessons learned from these storms did not carry over long enough to help Puerto Rico prepare for and recover from Hurricane Maria. The experiences and decision-making that impacted this response and recovery will be crucial to understand in order to better prepare for hurricanes in the future.

According to FEMA’s after action report, Hurricane Maria set multiple precedents for emergency management in the United States, including the longest sustained domestic air mission of food and water and the largest disaster commodity distribution in U.S. history (FEMA Public Affairs, 2018). The storm also broke records as one of the largest medical response missions, generator installations, and disaster housing missions in U.S. history (FEMA Public Affairs, 2018).

Using path dependency and punctuated equilibrium to examine the archival data and grounded analysis to analyze the interview data, major themes were extracted and connected with actions and decisions that took place. A lack of preparedness and the divisive nature of the relationship between the islands’ government and the federal government proved to be extremely problematic for the response and recovery. In addition, Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was already compromised and the past decade of government corruption and financial crises made the island susceptible to destruction. This dissertation argues that an intersection of blame avoidance, financial and resource constraints, and unclear or misplaced roles and responsibilities caused a second punctuated event, leading to the disastrous post-disaster environment we have witnessed.

Dr. Rogers is a graduate of Florida State University’s public administration doctoral program.

The feature image is from Wikipedia.

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