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A Comparison Of How The Government Responded To Hurricanes Harvey And Maria


It was late last summer when hurricanes brought flooding and devastation to the Gulf Coast region and the Caribbean. Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston region on August 25, and Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico on September 20. Politico reporter Danny Vinik has been looking into how the federal government responded to both disasters, and he found some striking differences. Danny Vinik joins me now in the studio to talk about those differences. Thanks for coming in today.

DANNY VINIK: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So you spent a lot of time on numbers in this story, comparing lots of things, like the meals that were distributed, the water that was distributed, the number of helicopters deployed to the different disaster sites. Can you just give us a few very quick examples of the differences you saw?

VINIK: We wanted to really understand outside of kind of the first few days - take a step back and really look at what the numbers said. And so some of the things we found was that there were two to three times as many meals and liters of water delivered in the first nine, 10 days after Hurricane Harvey compared Hurricane Maria over Puerto Rico. We saw huge disparity in helicopters.

Within six, seven days, there were more than 70 helicopters from the Department of Defense helping with flood water rescues in Houston region versus after Hurricane Maria, we saw a couple of dozen within those days. It took almost 20 days until there were 70-plus DOD helicopters actually helping Puerto Rico. It was a much slower ramp-up.

CHANG: You also spent a lot of time talking about President Trump's tweets after both of those hurricanes. Why are those tweets significant here?

VINIK: It's a funny metric. And we've never had this sort of a window into a president's thinking before. But in many ways, Twitter does offer some sort of a proxy for what he's looking at, what he's thinking about, what his...

CHANG: Sure.

VINIK: ...Priorities are. And we used those tweets to kind of examine it. We saw that there were many more tweets about Houston, about the hurricane in the week after the storm versus Puerto Rico. In some cases, he was even critical about Puerto Rico, about its infrastructure.

CHANG: Can you give two stark examples of the contrast?

VINIK: After Houston, he was praising the first responders versus after Puerto Rico, he spent a lot of time tweeting about the NFL and players taking a knee during the national anthem. And not just did that show what he was focused on, but it also distracted media coverage away from Puerto Rico when they really needed as much attention as possible.

CHANG: OK, so all these differences that you saw between Harvey response and Maria response - could there be valid reasons for those differences? I mean, Maria was the third in a series of back-to-back storms. There was Harvey. Then there was Irma, then Maria. There were also wildfires burning out West. I mean, isn't it understandable that federal resources were more overextended by the time Maria hit?

VINIK: Absolutely. And there are definitely valid reasons for some of these discrepancies. It's the extent of the discrepancies that were troubling to a lot of people. FEMA generally plans to have two what are called magnitude 1 events. And they had three. And then they had the wildfires on top of it.

CHANG: Right.

VINIK: Plus, Puerto Rico is a thousand miles from the mainland United States.

CHANG: It's just more logistically difficult to get aid there.

VINIK: Way more. You know, you can't have trucks lined up like you had after Houston, ready to go in. You don't have places for people to stay. There was no place safe in Puerto Rico after the hurricane. It took out the entire island. There's no communication on the island. I mean, it's hard to underestimate the extent of the challenges there. And yet at the same time, when the challenges are so hard, you would expect there'd be more prepositioning of assets. You know, you would expect more Department of Defense support.

CHANG: What has FEMA's response been to your story?

VINIK: You know, FEMA's been relatively quiet overall. They passed out a statement to some reporters saying that we did everything we could and that we did not treat Puerto Rico any differently. They definitely emphasized some of the challenges that we were just speaking about in terms of the infrastructure and in terms of the location, geography, in terms of the financial situation of Puerto Rico. You know, Puerto Rico is $70-plus billion in debt. And so they see those challenges as really being the driving force behind some of the numbers I reported.

CHANG: All right, Danny Vinik is a reporter for Politico. Thank you very much for joining us.

VINIK: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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