3 storms, 3 responses: Comparing Harvey, Irma and Maria

Posted at 8:29 PM, Sep 26, 2017

Almost a week since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the US recovery efforts there have been markedly different from the recovery efforts after Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida.

Fewer FEMA personnel are in place. Grassroots donations from fellow Americans are much smaller. The US territory still remains without power. And President Donald Trump has yet to visit.

Those differences are partly because of issues unique to Puerto Rico, an island that already had a weakened infrastructure, a government struggling through bankruptcy -- and that had only just been hit by Hurricane Irma.


In addition, each hurricane posed different threats and caused different problems. Harvey brought massive flooding, Irma deadly storm surges, and Maria catastrophic high winds.

Here's a look at how the response to Maria compares and contrasts with the federal response to Harvey and Irma in several areas.

FEMA response

For Hurricane Harvey, FEMA had supplies and personnel positioned in Texas before the storm made landfall on August 25. Within days, the number of FEMA employees, other federal agencies, and the National Guard deployed topped 31,000, FEMA said. In addition, FEMA supplied 3 million meals and 3 million liters of water to Texas to be distributed to survivors.

Even more federal personnel responded to Hurricane Irma when it made landfall in Florida on September 10. More than 40,000 federal personnel, including 2,650 FEMA staff, were in place by September 14. In addition, FEMA had transferred 6.6 million meals and 4.7 million liters of water to states in the Southeast after Irma as of the 14th.

By comparison, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have seen much fewer personnel since Hurricane Maria hit, according to FEMA. In a tweet on Monday, FEMA said that more than 10,000 federal staff were on the ground in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands assisting search and rescue and recovery efforts.

FEMA also said that "thousands" of federal staff, including 500 FEMA personnel, were on the ground in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands as of Tuesday morning. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders defended the federal response to Hurricane Maria on Monday as "anything but slow."

On Tuesday, President Trump said that the recovery was more difficult in Puerto Rico because of its geography.

"It's very tough because it's an island," Trump said. "In Texas, we can ship the trucks right out there, you know, we've got A-pluses on Texas and Florida and we will also on Puerto Rico, but the difference is this is an island sitting in the middle of an ocean, and it's a big ocean."

FEMA administrator Brock Long also noted Tuesday that Puerto Rico's international airport in San Juan was operating at a limited capacity, which made moving resources into the area more difficult.

Presidential visit

Trump visited Texas twice after Hurricane Harvey. The first visit came on August 29, four days after the storm first made landfall. There, he met with local, state and federal officials in Austin and Corpus Christi.

On September 2, Trump made a second visit to Texas, during which he visited a shelter and handed out boxed lunches with first lady Melania Trump.

After Hurricane Irma struck Florida, Trump visited the state on September 14, four days after the storm landed. He surveyed the damage, distributed meals in Naples in a hard-hit mobile home community, and thanked federal disaster relief officials in Fort Myers.

Trump said that he will visit Puerto Rico next Tuesday, which would be about two weeks after Hurricane Maria. That was the earliest date he could reach the island due to first responders' ongoing relief and recovery efforts, he said. He said he may also stop in the US Virgin Islands as well.

"Some people say, I read it this morning, it's literally destroyed," Trump said, adding, "The infrastructure was in bad shape as you know in Puerto Rico before the storm, and now in many cases, it has no infrastructure, so it's -- you're really starting from almost scratch."

Grassroots donations

The destruction in Houston from Hurricane Harvey prompted an outpouring of monetary donations. As of September 2, companies had pledged more than $157 million in relief efforts, and 69 companies had donated $1 million or more, according to the US Chamber of Commerce.

Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt was the most prominent celebrity advocate of those donations, and he personally helped marshal $37 million before closing his fundraising effort on September 15. Separately, all five living former US presidents joined together to raise money for storm relief under the One America Appeal site.

Hurricane Irma's impact on Florida sparked a new wave of donations. Corporate donations for Harvey and Irma relief combined have exceeded $222 million, according to the US Chamber of Commerce.

Donations for Hurricane Maria have so far been much smaller by comparison. NBA star Carmelo Anthony, whose father is Puerto Rican, had raised about $240,000 as of Tuesday. Corporate donations have similarly been more limited, and four companies have given a collective $8.1 million, the US Chamber of Commerce announced Monday.

Congressional action

Trump signed a bill that included emergency funding for hurricane relief on September 8, about two weeks after Hurricane Harvey hit. The bill, part of a deal struck between Trump and Democratic leaders, included about $22 billion for FEMA's disaster relief fund, $15 billion of which was new funds.

As of Monday, FEMA had $5.03 billion available for disaster spending between now and the end of September a FEMA spokesperson told CNN. The disaster relief fund will be replenished with another $6.7 billion in October when the new fiscal year begins.

Sanders said Monday it was too early to identify a spending amount to request from Congress.

"Once we have a greater insight into the full assessment of damage then we'll be able to determine what additional funds are needed but we're still in that ... fact-finding process on that piece of it," she said.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and other congressional leaders said there was a "humanitarian crisis" in Puerto Rico because of the storm.

"This is our country and these are our fellow citizens. They need our help and they're going to get our help," Ryan said.