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Hurricane Maria: I thought the response would be different to past disasters — but it wasn't

By North America correspondent Zoe Daniel, Sunday October 8, 2017 - 05:50 EDT

As the Trump administration continues to claim that everything is OK in Puerto Rico, Zoe Daniel reports on an island that might have to wait a year for electricity to be restored.

Hurricane, typhoon, cyclone — a trio of terms for storms that cause untold damage, especially when they hit in already vulnerable places where infrastructure is poor, housing is flimsy and capacity for recovery is thin.

I've seen it all before in other places, like Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam in 2015 when every leaf was blown off every tree, and remote islands were cut off for weeks.



Then there was the horrific and deadly 2013 Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, which killed thousands with its storm surge, affecting the islands of Samar and Leyte for all the years since.

I was reminded of Haiyan when cameraman John Mees and I hitched a ride to Puerto Rico on a C130 out of Savannah, Georgia.

As in 2013, the cameraman and I took off in the dark heading to an island with no power, little food or water and a desperate population, not quite knowing what we would find when we landed.

In 2013, it was different; thousands were dead and the airport and city were awash with mud and water from the tsunami-style surge, while the people seemed stunned, paralysed for days by the scale of it all.



Different place, the same problems

In Puerto Rico, the death toll stands at 34. And surely, being a US territory, we would see a massive relief effort swinging into efficient action to support the recovery of the living, right?

I recall thinking in those early days after both Haiyan and Pam in Vanuatu that those countries simply didn't have the capacity to deal with such a disaster.



Insufficient aircraft to carry manpower and supplies for example, poor populations living in poor housing, less money to throw at relief — less expertise to organise it.

In Puerto Rico, I thought, things would be different.

But alas, it was just a different place with the same problems overlaid with politics about which arm of government should be doing what — also a repeating post-disaster symptom.



With a population of around 3.5 million, Puerto Rico is a substantial community, but it's economically highly challenged with billions in public debt.

Its public infrastructure is poor due to lack of investment and maintenance; electricity is unreliable, communications are patchy, roads are bad.

Most don't even know it's a US territory

It's also remote from the US mainland, about a three-hour flight from Florida, and .



So Puerto Ricans have been left battling food, water and fuel shortages with a total lack of electricity and communications for more than two weeks.

Power could take as long as a year to restore. Can you imagine what that would be like?



The Government needs to stop saying it's all OK

The Trump administration has been criticised for its slow response.

But really, the big mistake it has made has been to repeatedly claim that everything is OK when it's plainly not the case.



Supplies are arriving, but they're not yet getting to people who need them in anything like the required volume because there are not enough troops, vehicles, or aircraft to deliver them.

And there's no way to communicate with people to tell them where to pick them up, even if they did have fuel and transport.

This is creating a disconnect where the Government is saying, "We are helping, what's the problem?" And the people are saying, "We haven't had any help, you don't care about us, that's the problem".

As in all of these situations, the resilience and strength of people is inspiring.



Communities are working together and people are doing their best to support each other during the disaster, but it's now almost three weeks since Maria hit.

At this rate, it's going to be a long, gruelling road to recovery, longer and harder than you'd expect from America.


- ABC

© ABC 2017

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