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Puerto Rico Is Not Texas or Florida

Catastrophic damages to everything!

The United States has weathered three hurricanes in about one month's time. The first two hit large and well-prepared states with significant resources and sophisticated disaster response capabilities. The length of Florida endured the wrath of Irma, but the extent of damages varied based on where you lived. This is not the case in Puerto Rico.

In Puerto Rico, almost every structure sustained damages from winds or storm surge. The infrastructure that did exist was likely poorly maintained since deferred maintenance is the easiest way to save money when money is in short supply.

Puerto Rico does not have "un-impacted areas."  Everywhere and everything has been disrupted. There can be no shifting of resources from one part of the island to another. Puerto Rico is also 1,000 miles away from the continental United States. 

Goods can come in via ships, but you need commercial power to operate cargo cranes on the terminals — generators can't be used. Yesterday, the airport was limited to only four incoming flights an hour. You can't support 3.5M people via helicopters coming from Navy ships. 

Everything about Hurricane Maria and the island territory of Puerto Rico makes this disaster unlike any we've seen in my more than quarter century of emergency management experience. Perhaps the Haiti earthquake is the closest comparison. 

While they may not be rescuing people from collapsed buildings at this point, there is about to be a human calamity due to shortages of potable water, food, electrical power and fuel. 

In this case, disaster response is going to go on for weeks if not months while the infrastructure is pieced back together one segment at a time. It is going to be a very long-haul event. Congressional action to provide long-term economic aid to the territory will be needed. After all, they were bankrupt before this disaster. One-hundred percent federal funding for public assistance (governments) will need to be authorized. They don't have two dimes to rub together as it is. 

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.