Filed Under:Claims, Catastrophe & Restoration

U.S. FEMA head says Puerto Rican politics slowed storm response

A political party banner waves over a home damaged in the passing of Hurricane Maria, in the community of Ingenio in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A political party banner waves over a home damaged in the passing of Hurricane Maria, in the community of Ingenio in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

(Bloomberg) -- President Trump administration’s emergency management director said political infighting in Puerto Rico has slowed the pace of recovery from Hurricane Maria.

"Politics between Republicans and Democrats is bad enough — but in Puerto Rico, politics is even worse,"  Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said. "When you can’t get elected officials at the local level to come to a joint field office because they disagree with the politics of the governor that’s there, it makes things difficult."

FEMA head rejects criticism


Long, at a briefing with reporters Monday in Washington, rejected the criticism toward his agency’s actions in Puerto Rico. "I fully believe we did everything we could," he said.

Long instead cited Puerto Rican politicians as the problem.

While Long didn’t mention any particular officials by name, he has previously criticized the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, as insufficiently involved in the effort. Cruz and President Donald Trump have been at odds since the hurricane, with the mayor accusing Trump of not doing enough to save lives.

In an interview with ABC on Oct. 1, Long said that Cruz had only been to the agency’s joint field office once. Asked again about the mayor a week later, after she complained about the slow delivery of federal assistance, Long responded, "We filtered out the mayor a long time."

Long also rejected the idea that FEMA should have sent more provisions to Puerto Rico before Maria made landfall Sept. 20, arguing that if the agency had delivered more food, water or fuel beforehand, the supplies could have been damaged by the storm.

"There’s only so much you can store safely," Long said. "It’s not solely on our shoulders. It never should be."

Not changing how FEMA operates


The FEMA chief also said it wasn’t his agency’s role or responsibility to move supplies to individual homes. "FEMA never takes commodities door to door," Long said. And he said the answer to more frequent and severe storms wasn’t changing how FEMA operates, but getting individuals to do more to prepare for disasters.

"It’s got to be more than FEMA improving," Long said. "If you’re relying on FEMA to come in and be the first responder, then the system’s not going to work very well."

Related: KCC estimates insured losses from Hurricane Maria will be $30 billion

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello, who aligns with Democrats, said in an interview Wednesday that he saw no point in fanning controversy in a crisis.

"After all is said and done, after all the noise is reduced, the only thing that really matters is results, outcomes and how the people of Puerto Rico end up," said Rossello.

"It is my job that I stay focused, that I keep my team focused and that I eliminate any other narrative that might be distracting to that. I think in general that has been my MO, but certainly under these circumstances, it was pretty clear to me that we had to focus on outcomes."

Efforts to reach Cruz’s spokesman were unsuccessful. In an interview with Bloomberg last month, however, Cruz said, “I have only one goal, and it is saving lives.”

Related: Irma and Maria leave a wake of heartbreak and devastation

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