Irwin Redlener, disaster management expert. (José A. Delgado Robles)

Washington - The decision not to give a more comprehensive and urgent role to the US Army in emergency operations in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria significantly limited opportunities for an adequate federal response, according to an expert.

Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, said yesterday that the government of President Donald Trump failed to understand that the particular circumstances of the island and the devastation caused by Maria deserved an extraordinary mobilization of military personnel.

"No one knows how to do these things like the military," said Redlener, who was the keynote speaker at a conference in Congress on the first anniversary of the catastrophe caused by Hurricane Maria.

Redlener argued, for example, that beyond the distribution of supplies, if the emergency had been left in the hands of the military, the installation of temporary bridges -that left communities isolated- would not have taken months.

"They can put up those things in 24 hours ... Why four months later a bridge in Morovis was still being built?” questioned Redlener, professor and pediatrician, indicating that in the case of Morovis it represented the link of a community with that town.

The same ability to install temporary systems, he said, would apply to communication towers and even control towers at airports.

The Washington Post was fast to compare the initial military deployment to the island with the rapid mobilization of soldiers during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

During the first 48 hours after the earthquake, the Pentagon mobilized 8,000 soldiers to Port-au-Prince. In San Juan, there were 4,400 soldiers and 1,000 coastguards -some of them usually on the island- eight days after the emergency began.

Redlener said that if they did not act more urgently to face a crisis estimated to have caused 2,975 deaths -despite the fact that five days after the hurricane the Pentagon knew that Puerto Rico was on the verge of a humanitarian crisis- it was because President Donald Trump did not think it was necessary.

"What we have seen last year -especially at the beginning- was a phenomenal ineptitude," he added.

The conference where Redlener spoke was organized by Democrats Bennie Thompson, spokesman for the Committee on Homeland Security, Raul Grijalva, minority leader in the Committee on Natural Resources, and Nydia Velazquez, spokeswoman for the Committee on Small Business.

Both the Senate and the federal Lower House were in legislative recess, but the conference -which allowed the voices of non-governmental organizations to be heard- was attended by officials from congressional offices.

Redlener, who has investigated the federal response in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, said the recovery of any area that has been devastated by a natural disaster should be measured in terms of the return to normal of children.

The best way to measure whether children returned to normal is to know about their return to safe housing and school, said the expert from Columbia University in New York.

In Puerto Rico, eight out of ten families with children reported that their homes suffered damage due to the hurricane. 37 percent of their houses were flooded, according to a study by the Youth Development Institute (YDI), a nonprofit organization.

One out of every four poor families also had moments when they could not eat.

Dr. Redlener, a pediatrician, argued that after a natural disaster the problems of the poor do not disappear, so rebuilding their damaged homes becomes a real challenge.

Contrary to those with economic means, for poor citizens -whose residence suffered serious damages- FEMA’s assistance is usually not enough to fix their homes and they do not have enough money to invest in what still needs repairs, he said. 

Non-governmental organizations participated in the event, several of them helped with supplies for Puerto Rico, such as the Hispanic Federation, "Friends for Puerto Rico", the Evelyn Lozada Foundation and World Kitchen.

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