The agency’s regional administrator pointed out Puerto Rico’s lack of preparedness, as a tropical storm approaches. The governor declares a state of emergency.
As Potential Tropical Cyclone Nine of the current hurricane season approaches the Caribbean, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) published a letter stating that Puerto Rico is “not well prepared nor has the ability to respond and manage a major event.”
In the document, FEMA explained the main difficulties the island would face during this storm season, three years after being devastated by Hurricane María.
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In some ways, the agency refutes what Governor Wanda Vázquez said in a news conference Tuesday.
Vázquez said 324 shelters are ready, as is the emergency plan, and she claims officers know what to do. Still, she also said 81 of those shelters lack power generators and cisterns.
“We’ve lived through several emergencies at the same time,” she said. “I want you to remain calm.”
Some government officials participating in the news conference said they were concerned about landslides and widespread flooding, and urged people to be prepared. The potential tropical cyclone is expected to become Tropical Storm Isaías.
Approximately 30,000 houses still have awnings provided by FEMA in lieu of a roof. According to the agency’s Individual Assistance Program, 1,138,843 houses were affected by hurricanes María and Irma in September 2017.
Thomas Von Essen, FEMA’s regional administrator, emphasized in a six-letter page the government’s inability to handle a natural disaster right now, and mentioned specific situations.
Von Essen mentioned in the letter that after initial conversations with officials regarding the preparation process for hurricane season, there has not been any follow-up, especially from Antonio Pabón, Puerto Rico’s chief of staff.
“It has been four weeks since my in-person conversation with Mr. Pabón and to my knowledge, none of the observations and concerns in this letter have been addressed, and so I wanted to raise these concerns directly to you,” the letter says.
On Wednesday, Pabón answered Von Essen’s letter and assured him that the Puerto Rico Emergency Management Bureau (PEMB) and the Department of Public Safety (DPS) have been working closely with the FEMA team.
Among the main concerns, Von Essen mentioned the PEMB’s inability to fill vacant positions for a 24/7 emergency operations center.
The administrator also said in the letter that FEMA supplied over 900 generators to key facilities during Hurricane María, but many of these facilities still don’t have back-up power or the contracts to provide it.
Another situation Von Essen noted is the lack of a satellite communications contract, which means most public government locations do not have the ability to be in touch during an emergency.
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The island is facing Potential Tropical Cyclone Nine amid a pandemic, and a seismic sequence that has been affecting the southwestern region of the island since January. Puerto Rico’s Seismic Network reported two tremors this morning, happening two minutes apart. One had a magnitude of 3.78, the other, 3.32.
The administrator said that during Hurricane María and the recent earthquakes—on January 6 there was a 6.4 magnitude earthquake—there was “a robust Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) in place to assist the island. The current availability of such assistance has not been verified. “This is especially concerning considering the COVID environment and the potential Federal support that may be needed to manage these incoming resources,” the letter said.
The role of the National Guard, the safety plan, and the plan for agencies to distribute the work were also considered.
The fragility of Puerto Rico’s power grid is one of the main concerns. In 2017, the passing of Hurricane María left it in shambles, and on Tuesday, a power outage left more than 400,000 clients in the dark.
José Ortiz, director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (AEE by its Spanish initials), said during the news conference that the cause of the power outage is unknown. On Wednesday, he said the agency found tools left behind at a power plant, suggesting that sabotage could have been the cause.
“This is terrorism, internal terrorism. I hope I’m wrong because I don’t want to imagine someone having such bad blood,” Ortiz said in an interview on WKAQ-AM.
Ángel Jaramillo, president of power authority workers union UTIER, denied the sabotage allegations.
Ortiz said power outages could happen during the passing of the tropical storm.
Vázquez declared a State of Emergency on Wednesday afternoon, as the storm approached. Meteorologist Ada Monzón said the impact of Isaías it will be noticeable from 6 p.m. on Wednesday from 6 a.m. on Thursday.
People around the island have started to report the atmospheric conditions on social media.