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Storms in paradise islands: The challenges of typhoon response and recovery in US territories

Supertyphoon Yutu slammed into Saipan in November 2018

By Dana Williams

When disaster strikes in American Samoa, federal responders need to contend with a lack of street addresses. On Guam and the Northern Marianas, they have to recognize the importance of outdoor kitchens.

In Puerto Rico, local land ownership laws conflict with U.S. guidelines for property titles, complicating requests for federal assistance. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, social vulnerability during disasters is an issue.

Representatives from the territories gathered Friday morning to discuss the response to natural disasters in a forum hosted by Right to Democracy, a new organization that describes itself as “focused on confronting and dismantling the undemocratic colonial framework governing people in U.S. territories.”

The group is co-founded by attorneys Neil Weare, who has raised federal legal challenges to inequalities in territories, and Adi Martínez Román, who has worked to empower community leaders in Puerto Rico.

Damage at the El Mani coastal community in the aftermath of Hurricane María in September 2017. Photo courtesy of Coastal Resilience Center/ Ismael Pagán-Trinidad.

“We are talking today about something that we have in common across our territories,” Martínez Román said. “More than our beautiful beaches, and the flamboyant trees, we are affected by very strong storms.”

Charles Esteves, the Guam administrator for the Office of Civil Defense, differentiated between disaster response and recovery.

He said short-term response, the days, weeks and months after a disaster, is different from the long-term recovery, when services are returned to normal.

Six weeks after Typhoon Mawar, “we are still pretty much in the response and only now, after more than a month of restoration efforts, moving into recovery," Esteves said.

He said one challenge of Mawar was “the cascading failure of interdependent systems. Everything from fuel to telecommunications, to water. And of course, power.”

Amaris Torres Rivera, an attorney in Puerto Rico, criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response after Hurricane Maria hit the territory in 2017.

She said while the principal language in Puerto Rico is Spanish, many deployed FEMA workers spoke only English. Documentation was also in English, and some of the elderly population couldn’t read or write. She also said home ownership in the territory doesn’t require a property title, so people were denied aid under federal guidelines.

As a result, according to a report on the agency’s website, “FEMA implemented policy changes to increase equity in how the agency delivers disaster assistance to individuals and households. Changes include more flexibilities in proving home ownership and occupancy and expanding the types of damage and assistance provided to survivors.”

When asked about the federal response to Typhoon Mawar, Guam Bar Association President Jacqueline Terlaje said, “It appears that FEMA has learned a lot from its experience in Puerto Rico.”

“FEMA’s response has been a positive one here. They opened up centers, they found interpreters. So things, I think, have been moving along quite well.”

Rota mayor’s office spokesman Ivan Mereb said after Typhoon Mangkhut in 2018, he spoke with a FEMA representative about differences in the territories.

“We have different amenities at our homes. For us in the CNMI, they do count the pala pala, that is another extension of the house where people go out and cook. Same thing. I think what is unique here is that it takes the bigger territories to go through it.”

Ethan Lake has worked as a Fusion Center administrator for the American Samoa Department of Homeland Security. He said FEMA’s response to cyclones there “has been pretty good.”

“When FEMA does come out, the problem that we have, I think some of the other territories are similar, we don't have any addresses,” he said. “We don’t use any street names. So that makes it a challenge when you're trying to file paperwork and so forth. And we're trying to address that. Because in trying to figure out ways to get funding, I think the Virgin Islands went through a whole program to get their streets addressed, we still don't have that.”

Lake said homes in American Samoa are also “not your traditional U.S. mainland-type houses.” Cooking areas are also outdoors.

Professor Gregory Guannel, a civil engineer in the U.S. Virgin Islands, said the federal government spends a lot of money after disasters in the territories, but “ultimately what we find is there are some long-term issues that a territory has that I don’t think this funding will address, and I don’t think the federal policies are meant to address some of those long-standing issues.”

“We really have some extremely vulnerable regions with degraded infrastructure that suffer from lack of maintenance and are still sort of impacted from the hurricane,” he said.


Residents who have access to solar power “to sort of help them navigate some of the chronic disruptions tend to be white, tend to be wealthier and often tend to be, you know, not sort of local.”

He said the disaster recovery discussion needs to happen on the community level.

“A more sort of deeper dialogue about really what it means to be resilient in this age where chronic and acute disruptions are happening all the time,” he said. “And unfortunately, those who have access to solutions are not the most vulnerable.”

Guannel and Professor Cecil Ortiz Garcia of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley both spoke about how governance is important to disaster recovery in the territories.

“Our governments are not really geared for that,” Ortiz Garcia said. Governments are geared for getting candidates elected every four years, “getting folks in and out of the government bureaucracy based on that party affiliation. And that clashes against our survivability.”

He said historically, officials have focused on hardening physical infrastructure, but communities also need to incorporate “soft” aspects of disaster resilience.

“If you do not use your local knowledge appropriately if it's not part of the governance of recovery and reconstruction. It's ensuring an elongated timeline for recovery and reconstruction,” he said. “Unfortunately, what happens with that is that people die.”

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