Tuesday, September 26, 2017

After Puerto Rico Disaster, We Know So Little

I’ve been waiting to hear how Puerto Rico fared in a storm that had the potential to be the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. After a week, the mere fact that we have not yet heard from half of the island is a likely indication that things have gone badly.

Weather measures looked grim in the first place. Hurricane conditions covered the entire territory for hours and lasted a whole day. Estimated rainfall totals were possibly as low as 6 inches on the southwest coast, though that is already enough for severe flooding, to 40 inches at higher elevations in the interior. You don’t get that kind of rain along with hurricane-force winds without destroying structures of every kind, and the most prominent casualty has been the Guajataca Lake dam. There is damage to the dam and more prominent damage to its spillway, and though it continues to function approximately as intended, damage has progressed far enough that engineers are telling everyone to stay away.

The Guajataca stories are emblematic of the difficulty in getting accurate information about the state of Puerto Rico. News photos have been few and undated and have not focused on the damage. Early reports were wildly inaccurate, some incorrectly stating that the dam had collapsed and misspelling the name of the river, dam, and lake as “Guatajaca,” others falsely claiming that no dam failure had taken place, and still others incorrectly placing the threat near the major city of San Juan. The faltering dam threatens two towns with populations of 70,000, but what part of that number had to evacuate? Some have said as few as 320, others, all 70,000, and it appears the lower number is closer than the higher number, but we don’t really know.

Looking at the state of the Guajataca Dam is frustrating enough to remind even a philosopher about how little we really know. Experts from the Army Corps of Engineers went to see the dam but even they are not able to add much new information. When a dam is made from compacted earth, the key question is how far into the soil the water has reached, and how much is seeping or flowing through the dam near the top. I don’t know of any direct way to measure the strength of soil buried deep underground, and the challenge is that much harder when it is not safe to walk onto the top of the dam.

The broken dam is not the biggest question now after affected residents have had time to evacuate. How about the question of how many have died? That is a question that obviously can’t be answered when roads are blocked and 100 villages remain isolated, unable to communicate with the outside world. Normally in such a situation, helicopters could land and evacuate the most gravely ill people to hospitals, but even a measure as obvious as that is difficult right now. There aren’t many helicopters, and even if there were dozens available, there isn’t enough fuel on the island. Then, where do you take sick and injured people? With the electrical grid destroyed and fuel running low, hospitals are barely functioning. If the lights and medical equipment at a hospital go out, a very present possibility, the death toll could add up quickly.

One reason the United States does not know how to handle the situation is that a disaster of this size and shape has never occurred in the history of the country. When New Orleans was submerged, Baton Rouge was only moderately damaged. It could serve as a base of operations for the relief of New Orleans. Here the United States faces a disaster five times as large, and there is no undamaged town in Puerto Rico that can serve as a starting point for recovery.

I don’t know what the first steps have to be, but it is obvious that some of the most basic components of economic functioning have to be put in place before even the planners at FEMA can relate to the situation in a constructive way. This list would include ports, roads, water, food, motor fuel, and banks. Even this short list would be obviously beyond the capacity of local authorities anywhere. The largest airport has reopened, at least, and if tourists are stranded in the airport waiting for fares to fall below $2,000 a seat so they can get home, that tells us that the airport is functioning and some supplies are arriving.

With so much at stake, hundreds of people on Twitter wonder why there is no aircraft carrier on the way to help. Or maybe there is. There is so little we really know, but it is clear enough that the crisis in Puerto Rico will get worse before it gets better.