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Disaster Management: Hurricane Georges in Puerto Rico

04 Dec 2017Essay Samples

The Hurricane Georges struck Puerto Rico on 21st September 1998 moving east to west across Puerto Rico with fierce winds gusting to as high as 150 miles per hour and depositing up to 27 inches of rainfall. Storm-related winds, flooding and mud slides caused billions of dollars in damages and economic losses. All seventy-eight of Puerto Rico’s municipalities and most of the 3.9 million residents were affected by the storm. The hurricane stormed through Puerto Rico for a good fifteen hours and damaged everything that came across its path. This was the biggest hurricane to pass through Puerto Rico in seventy years and claimed seven lives and caused innumerable injuries. A number of houses were damaged followed by road blockades with downed trees and electric poles. The hurricane left behind total damages of $ 1.9 billion, including more than $ 330 million in crop and livestock losses.

Farmers and agriculturists were shocked to find that more than eighty per cent of the crops have been damaged including coffee, bananas and plantains in addition to poultry and dairy losses. Scholars and analysts predicted that it could take months and in some cases even years to restore the full harvest that characterized Puerto Rico’s agricultural produce. A lot of farmers also had to contend with impeded access to farms, flooded processing plants and impaired irrigation and drainage systems. Government agencies sprung into action and began with the tedious process of repairing roads, restoring land and clearing debris. It has been estimated that the Hurricane Georges tragedy left more than 900,000 people without potable water. It also caused 100 per cent disruption of electrical service and more than 200,000 people had to live without telephone communication (FEMA, 1999).

Of course even a single loss of life is unacceptable but the fact that only seven people lost their lives during the entire nightmare is indeed commendable. The low loss of life can mainly be attributed to the unflinching efforts of the meteorological department whose accurate forecasting and timely prediction resulted in both the people and the government agencies being reasonably prepared for the disaster. Not only this but the mitigation programs that were implemented keeping in mind the previous hurricanes that Puerto Rico had experienced served their purpose. Finally the preparedness and response on the part of the people and the Government of Puerto Rico also paid off and managed to transform a tragedy of epic proportions into a mere tragedy. The Federal Government was quick to respond to Puerto Rico’s request for assistance. In fact damage assessment teams and emergency supplies began arriving in Puerto Rico even before the hurricane struck (FEMA, 1999). Close to $ 700 million in immediate response assistance was provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. One must bear in mind however that it will take years for the local business communities and the residents of Puerto Rico to recover from this disaster and for this purpose the FEMA approved nearly $ 5.7 million for crisis counseling programs.

These services were implemented by Government of Puerto Rico’s Mental Health and Anti-Addiction Services Administration. Not only this but a long-term recovery program was initiated by the President in order to speed the recovery process and to ensure that the needs of the victims of the hurricane were met with immediately (Pabon, 1999). The Task Force assigned to this program also focused on incorporating mitigation measures into the recovery process to reduce the risk of damage from future disasters. The Federal Task Force and the Government held their first joint meeting on 14th October 1998 and it was at this meeting that five long-term recovery priorities were identified: mitigation, housing, economic revitalization and stability, energy and transportation (FEMA, 1999). It has also been estimated that the FEMA provided close to two billion dollars as recovery assistance. The Government of Puerto Rico did its bit by taking a census of all the damaged homes by the hurricane. Following this the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) conducted a meeting in order to discuss the results of the census and further to identify the options available to begin speedy and effective construction of houses.

The havoc wrecked by the hurricane exposed Puerto Rico’s vulnerability to the traditional causes of hurricane damage: high winds, heavy rains and storm surge (FEMA, 1999). Puerto Rico is comprised of steep slopes and is susceptible to mud slides, landslides and earthquakes. This is mainly because of the high degree of seismic activity that takes place in the region and thus the government agencies focused on the building of houses and other buildings that would be able to withstand the effects of natural calamities in the region. A measure known as sustainable redevelopment was initiated by FEMA, which is an effective and emerging strategy for coping with emergency situations like earthquakes, hurricanes etc. Sustainable redevelopment not only takes into account the fact that natural hazards pose a high degree of risk but also it takes into consideration the compatibility of development with the natural environment, the use of non-renewable resources and social and economic issues affected by improved community planning. Need an essay on Environment? Order any academic writing help at our site.

Thus one can say that the only positive thing that came out of this tragedy was that it gave the government of Puerto Rico an opportunity to build smarter and safer buildings thereby reducing the risk of potential damage that may be a direct result of natural calamities that frequent the region. Another aspect of recovery assistance is that the Government of Puerto Rico was able to identify mitigation (steps to prevent future damage) as one of the key elements to enhance the effects of long-term recovery. The Federal Government was particularly encouraged by and was supportive of Puerto Rico’s proactive leadership in the area of mitigation (Alexander, 1999). The Federal Mitigation Actions emphasized on three areas: (1) building codes (2) planning and coordination and (3) floodplain management.

In order to coordinate efforts aimed at the mitigation of future housing damage and construction of new houses, the Governor of Puerto Rico signed an executive order and submitted legislation for the New Safe House Project. The project was created to facilitate a prompt response to the needs of the Hurricane victims and to mitigate the risk of damage from similar events in the future (FEMA, 1999). The main objective of this legislation was the rehabilitation, reconstruction and replacing of affected homes, a task that required a number of both skilled and unskilled workers and a large amount of raw materials. Puerto Rico was able to use this increased activity in the housing sector as an opportunity to decrease the unemployment rate by construction and labor jobs for its unemployed workers. The funds that were employed for this purpose were also used to train both skilled and unskilled workers to support disaster recovery efforts. Another 5 important aspect of this construction work was that the new houses constructed were affordable by the locals of Puerto Rico and were more reliable and safe to live in than the previous houses that the hurricane had demolished. This was especially beneficial for those who had very low or no mortgage or rate payment capacity.

Finally Hurricane Georges also heavily damaged Puerto Rico’s agricultural sector. The total agricultural losses were estimated at more than $ 315 million that include: $ 176 million in crop losses, $ 61 million in livestock losses and $ 78 million in physical losses i.e. barns, dairies, processing systems and drainage systems. Almost ninety five per cent of the island’s plantain crops and seventy five per cent of the coffee crops were destroyed. Also, the poultry industry lost 4.5 million chickens, which account for sixty five per cent of the industry’s production capabilities. Many of the 36,000 jobs in the agricultural sector were affected by the storm. As a result of this, the USDA provided technical assistance and financing tools to respond to the severe agricultural losses and to mitigate against future losses. The Federal assistance was focused on: (1) financial assistance for crops and physical losses, (2) expanding agricultural insurance coverage and (3) financial and technical assistance for conservation measures to reduce flooding and erosion. As far as the energy sector is concerned, the Federal assistance was mainly focused on resources for repairing electrical transmission and distribution, and recommendations for design improvements, emergency generators and assistance for developing a more reliable electric system.

“The energy generation and transmission network on the island was greatly impacted. Its failure crippled other basic services, such as water and sewage treatment, telephone service, transportation, and local commerce. The island's electrical system suffered an estimated $250 million in damage. The cost of 6 repairing the system will be paid for by a combination of Puerto Rico's self-insurance coverage and funding through FEMA's Public Assistance program. More than 300 electric utility workers and trucks and equipment were flown to the island to assist local crews. Emergency generators were provided to keep critical facilities operational, and plans are being developed to keep some of the generators in place to provide backup power during future disasters. The Department of Energy (DOE), FEMA, and Puerto Rico are examining mitigation measures to improve the disaster resistance of the electrical system through enhanced generation/transmission relationships, better power line placement, and placing poles deeper in the ground” (FEMA, 1999).

Last but not the least, the key transportation issues that were addressed included: (1) repairing damaged roads and bridges (2) developing a reliable power source for the island and (3) dredging harbors. For this purpose, the debris from the roads was immediately removed and four temporary bridges were installed to enable people to get from one place to another. “The Department of Transportation's (DOT) Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and FEMA are providing approximately $55 million to assist in rebuilding the island's damaged transportation system. Eligible mitigation measures will be incorporated into road and bridge repairs to reduce the risk of such severe damage in the future. The Federal Transit Agency (FTA) and FEMA also are working with the Government of Puerto Rico to explore funding options to establish a reliable power source for the $1.55 billion Tren Urbano project which is a San Juan metro area mass transit rail system” (FEMA, 1999).

The above analysis shows that the Hurricane Georges disaster was managed effectively by the government agencies and by the local government of Puerto Rico. Even 7 though the extent of damage done was quite high, the fact remains that accurate forecasting and prediction by the meteorological agency and immediate action taken by the government agencies was able to avert the disaster to a great extent. Thus the disaster management of the Hurricane Georges tragedy was more or less successful.

Bibliography

  1. “Long-term Recovery Action Plan, Puerto Rico.” Available online at: http://www.fema.gov/diz98/prap_03.htm 1999.
  2. “Puerto Rico: Damage Investigation of Hurricane Georges.” Available online at: http://www.eqe.com/revamp/georges.htm
  3. Pabon, lleana. “Hurricane Georges hits Puerto Rico.” Available online at: http://www.fsa.usda.gov/pas/fsanews/html/1998/dec98/1298cover.htm
  4. Alexander, Barnett Catherine. “Hurricane Georges Slashes Puerto Rico.” Available online at: http://www.afscme.org/publications/public_employee/1999/pejf9919.htm January 1999.
  5. “Hurricane Georges.” Available online at: http://www.usatoday.com/hurricane/prap1998.htm

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