The federal response to hurricanes Harvey and Irma was faster and more generous than the help sent to Puerto Rico in preparation and in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, according to University of Michigan researchers.
“What we found is that there was a very significant difference in not only the timing of the responses but also in the volume of resources distributed in terms of money and staffing,” said lead author Charley Willison, a doctoral candidate in the School of Public Health.
“Overall, Hurricane Maria had a delayed and lower response across those measures compared to hurricanes Harvey and Irma. It raises concern for growth in health disparities as well as potential increases in adverse health outcomes.”
For example, within nine days of the landfall of both Harvey and Irma, survivors had received nearly $100 million in FEMA dollars, while María survivors had received slightly more than $6 million.
Staffing efforts also fell short, the report notes. At its peak, federal personnel on-site for Hurricane Harvey in Texas reached 31,000 people, while 40,000 responded to Irma in Florida during the first 180 days post-hurricane. By comparison, at its peak during the same period, there were 19,000 federal personnel on-site helping with the recovery of Hurricane Maria.
In addition, it took four months for disaster appropriation funding to Puerto Rico to reach the levels that Texas and Florida received in two months.
“The analysis shows that the disaster response to the three hurricanes did not align with storm severity and may affect deaths and recovery rates,” Willison said.
Scott Greer, professor of health management and policy, and of global public health, said the findings are important because “not only was the lack of emergency response a likely contributor to thousands of avoidable deaths, it was also a reminder of the penalties of not being fully represented in federal politics. Democracy is a public health policy.”
The study will be published in the British Medical Journal Global Health. For the analysis, researchers used publicly available data from the Federal Emergency Management Authority, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the Puerto Rican government and George Washington University.
Additional authors included Melissa Creary, professor of health management and policy, and Phillip Singer, assistant professor of political science at the University of Utah.