The devastation in Puerto Rico is profound — and being underestimated by federal officials, researchers say.

Trump Trivializes Puerto Rico Crisis, But Models (and Evidence) Suggest an Ongoing Catastrophe

President Trump today threatened on Twitter to withdraw all federal aid workers from Puerto Rico, a highly unusual proposal for a hurricane response effort but one that lines up with some of his previous, widely criticized and derisive statements about the crisis and local responsibility. Three weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, more than three million Americans are still struggling to access drinking water, food, electricity from the grid, and cell phone connectivity.

The devastation in Puerto Rico is profound — and being underestimated by federal officials, researchers say.

Visual: Mario Tama/Getty

The federal government has responded with thousands of civilian, medical and military personnel, food and water distribution, $54.6 million to repair the electrical grid, and more, but suffering persists. Most of the island remains in blackout, about a third has no access to water service, communications are crippled, and the hospital system is reportedly on the brink of collapse.

The situation remains dire in part because humanitarian relief efforts in this case have fallen into a conceptual and semantic trap, one logistics expert says. Puerto Rico is not experiencing a “disaster,” says civil and environmental engineer José Holguín-Veras. Rather, the island currently is in the clutches of a full-on “catastrophe” — and the federal aid model is predicated on the former, he says.

Researchers who study infrastructure and humanitarian logistics have long argued for a more nuanced understanding of the difference between disasters — in which roads, electricity and phones, and well as private businesses, volunteer organizations, charities, churches, and local leaders are still able to function and participate in recovery — and catastrophes, where they are not.

Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan were all what Holguín-Veras, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, would classify as catastrophe. Despite President Trump’s declaration to the contrary last week, so too, the researcher says, is Puerto Rico’s plight today.

“In Houston, following Hurricane Harvey, the locals could respond,” he said. “And you have resources, you have medical teams, you have trucks, you have drivers and volunteers etc. In a catastrophic event, all of that is wiped out. Even the local leadership is wiped out. The mayor of San Juan’s house was flooded in Maria.”

The federal government has dedicated more than 19,000 personnel to restoration and relief work for both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to a Federal Emergency Management Agency statement on Wednesday. That sounds like a lot, but even if all those workers were sent to Puerto Rico alone, the figure would provide for the safe distribution of food and water to only about half of the island’s population — 1.7 million people, according to a new analysis using a model developed by Holguín-Veras and Miguel Jaller, a civil and environmental engineer at the University of California, Davis.

And that may well be optimistic. Every food and water distribution worker requires three to five additional support staff — truck drivers to transport supplies, mechanics, communications workers, and replacement volunteers — the researchers estimated. “It’s a very complicated undertaking that requires manpower that I do not see in Puerto Rico,” Holguín-Veras said.

The loss of local infrastructure can choke even aggressive, conventional disaster responses. It can translate into cargo containers stuck in ports and outside aid workers left flat-footed, devoid of key communication and travel resources that they need to carry out their mission. Holguín-Veras has documented similar conditions in analyses of other worst-case events, including the attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as Hurricane Katrina, where he led field investigations to interview responders and track patterns and missteps.

The calculation behind the researchers’ Puerto Rico estimates derives from a model of a 10-day supply of food and water for the affected population and aid workers, the affected area in square miles, and other inputs. (A manuscript detailing the project is under review with a journal, Holguín-Veras says.) The model then computes an optimal number of distribution points for relief supplies such as food, water and routine medical items — 355 points with 8 lanes apiece and rations to last for 10 days, in the case of Puerto Rico.

Relief workers in U.S. territory recently handed out small boxes of food to residents which likely contain only enough food and water for one day, Holguín-Veras said. “That tells me right there that the supplies there are not enough.”

The U.S. military started setting up mobile morgues in Puerto Rico, according to the news service PR Informa, and Holguín-Veras, who has been communicating with colleagues on the island, said on Wednesday that conditions for residents have not improved in the past several days.

“The situation is the same, based on recent contact with affluent colleagues at Puerto Rico who have started to ration supplies,” he told me. “I cannot tell you how much that pains me. I believe that without urgent action the situation is going to continue for a while. It troubles me that the media have not basically made a stink about this. That is a major issue.”