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Why states took so long to dispatch disaster aid to Puerto Rico

Christopher Flavelle and Jonathan Levin, Bloomberg News on

Published in Weather News

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Within a week of Hurricane Harvey slamming into the Texas coast, Virginia had dispatched a 14-person urban search-and-rescue team, a 17-person team to save people trapped by flood waters, and a National Guard team with 40 soldiers and seven helicopters.

But in the two weeks since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Virginia had sent just a single person though an interstate compact for managing disaster response. His job: helping the island coordinate its requests for aid to other states.

Critics have focused on the pace of federal aid reaching Puerto Rico. But states -- a significant source of disaster assistance -- also took far longer to dispatch equipment and personnel to the island after Maria than to Texas or Florida after Harvey and Irma, prolonging the suffering of Puerto Rico's residents and delaying its recovery.

State officials say Puerto Rico was slow to ask for or accept assistance -- a charge the commonwealth governor disputes, saying Maria proved more powerful than expected and that he acted appropriately. There were also worries how the bankrupt island would reimburse the states as required by the compact. Assistance began moving after the federal government agreed -- six days after the storm -- to foot the bill for the recovery.

"There were some concerns" about Puerto Rico's ability to repay the states, said Mike Sprayberry, president of the National Emergency Management Association, a group of state disaster-response coordinators. It runs the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, which coordinates most state-to-state assistance.

Puerto Rico was slower than Texas or Florida to make its first formal request to EMAC for help from other states. Texas first requested help on the day that Harvey smashed into the coast northeast of Corpus Christi and days before it began flooding the streets of Houston. Florida was even faster, making its first request six days before Irma made landfall.

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Puerto Rico officials didn't make their first formal request for interstate assistance until Sept. 21, the day after Maria struck, knocking out the island's power grid flooding cities and destroying homes and crops.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello defended the timing of the request, saying it took time to appreciate the extent of the devastation.

Once that was clear, Rossello said in an interview, his office "asked for EMAC, and asked for them quickly."

Like Virginia, Pennsylvania was quick to announce assistance for Texas and Florida. On the day that Harvey struck Texas, the state sent two members of a search-and-rescue team, and another 45 members two days later. The day after Irma hit Florida, Pennsylvania sent 23 people to help with storm cleanup. But it wasn't until a week after Maria that Pennsylvania sent help to Puerto Rico through the compact.

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