In the nearly seven weeks since Hurricane Maria slammed ashore Puerto Rico, causing widespread devastation across the U.S. territory, Louisiana has been sharing resources and assistance.
After seeing the damage firsthand during a brief visit last week that included tours of some of the hardest-hit areas on the island, Louisiana's top disaster recovery leaders say that Puerto Rico is on a very long road to recovery.
"This is a long-term recovery — it's going to take a lot of money and a lot of resources," Maj. Gen. Glenn Curtis, the adjutant general of the Louisiana National Guard, said in a recent interview upon return from San Juan. "We in the continental United States don't need to get comfortable and let them slip away."
Louisiana has deployed to Puerto Rico members of the National Guard and disaster recovery officials, sent supplies and heavy equipment, and taken on a central role in developing a critical piece of its housing recovery plan.
"We've received so much help from other states, whenever we can we try to pay it forward and pay it back," said Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness executive director James Waskom, who also traveled to Puerto Rico.
For Louisiana, it's an all-too-familiar feeling.
"If you go back to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike — all the other states and territories came to the aid of Louisiana and helped us tremendously," Curtis said. "As a state, we owe U.S. citizens in other states and territories the same courtesy when disasters happen.
"They are American citizens, and if they are in a bad way, then it's our duty and responsibility to help take care of this," Curtis added.
Both Curtis and Waskom said one of the things that stuck out to them was the spirit of the Puerto Rican people. As they walked the streets of Toa Baja, just outside of San Juan, and Rincon, on the island's western coastline, children and adults came to the streets to greet the delegation, which included Gov. John Bel Edwards and representatives from the Puerto Rico governor's office.
"Their spirit and sense of resiliency was amazing to me. They were so appreciative of the help they are getting," Waskom said.
SAN JUAN — Gov. John Bel Edwards capped off a trip to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico on Tuesday with visits to some of the hardest hit areas of…
States and U.S. territories share resources in times of disaster through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact. All 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands have signed onto the mutual aid agreement, which was ratified by Congress in the 1990s.
Under the EMAC, Puerto Rico will pay Louisiana for all costs — Louisiana taxpayers aren't picking up the tab. After Puerto Rico pays the state, then its government can seek federal reimbursement through its FEMA cost-share agreement.
For example, it costs an average of about $450 per soldier per day to have Louisiana Guard members deployed in Puerto Rico, according to the Governor's Office.
When Curtis and Waskom visited, many of the guardsmen had been in Puerto Rico for a month. While some were starting to head back to Louisiana, transportation has been uncertain. Many weren't sure exactly when they would be able to return home.
"They went for the right reasons, and that's to help those folks out," Curtis said. "They were sleeping on cots, didn't have much running water and eating MREs (military Meals Ready to Eat), but they understand the reality of where they are. They get it."
"They are great Americans — they are our soldiers and they know when it's time to take care of people," he added.
Louisiana had a similar agreement with Texas after Hurricane Harvey this year, with Louisiana National Guardsmen and law enforcement officials helping with floodwater rescues and other recovery efforts.
SAN JUAN — With thousands of people still in shelters more than a month after Hurricane Maria made landfall, Puerto Rico has launched its own …
When a state experiences a declared disaster — man-made or natural — then the disaster assistance coordinators send a request out to their counterparts in other states. Waskom said he sees all of the requests and evaluates them on an individual basis for a variety of factors, including Louisiana's own risk during hurricane season and what various state agencies and some local say that they can temporarily spare. During protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline, deputies from St. Charles Parish provided assistance through the EMAC process, Waskom said. A request under consideration right now would have New Orleans firefighters providing assistance in Puerto Rico at some point.
Louisiana's known for having one of the leading EMAC coordinating teams in the country, he said.
After the request is received and vetted, the state responds with the details of what resources it can offer and how much it will cost.
Edwards joined Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló for the launch of the Tu Hogar Renace, or STEP, homeowner assistance program that is modeled after the Shelter at Home program Louisiana implemented after catastrophic floods swept the state last year.
GOHSEP deputy director Will Rachal spent a month working with Puerto Rico housing leaders to develop the program and received special recognition during the news conference in Toa Baja at which the program was announced.
One of the biggest hurdles for Puerto Rico's recovery is getting the supplies needed to rebuild to the island and the potential increased costs associated with that. It's about 1,030 miles from Miami to San Juan. The port at New Orleans and access to the Mississippi River is about 1,700 miles from San Juan.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Gov. John Bel Edwards and top disaster recovery leaders from his administration are traveling to Puerto Rico this week…
"That alone is going to drive up the costs that FEMA will spend," Waskom said. "All those resources have to get to the island some way."
Louisiana's Shelter at Home was met with mixed reviews after it was implemented in the wake of last year's historic floods. FEMA agreed to adjust the program to Puerto Rico's specific needs and to address concerns raised by Louisiana leaders to improve upon the program.
The price-per-household cap for Puerto Rico's program has been set at $20,000, instead of the $15,000 cap in Louisiana, largely because of anticipated transport needs. Additionally, homeowners may qualify for $7,000 in solar panels or a generator because of the island's aging power grid.
Waskom said one of his other concerns is about the capacity for contractors in Puerto Rico or bringing them in from other areas. Louisiana's program had subcontractors from across the state and eventually hired some from out of state to meet the needs of Shelter at Home.
"Every disaster is different," Waskom said. "I've been in this business since before 2000. You have to look at a wide range of programs for recovery."
Waskom noted the impracticality of deploying manufactured housing units, commonly called FEMA mobile homes, to the island. FEMA spent about $130,000 for the purchase, transportation and installation of each "manufactured housing unit" in Louisiana after the floods. More than 2,000 of them remain in use as flood victims continue to work toward permanent housing solutions.
"(Shelter at Home) is the cheapest out of the temporary shelter options," Waskom said. "We just think this is the most logical way to go."
Curtis, after seeing the impact of hurricanes and floods in Louisiana and neighboring Gulf Coast states, said he thinks that the nature of the construction of many homes he saw in Puerto Rico will ease the rebuilding process.
Unlike most homes here that have drywall interiors and wood or carpet flooring, the homes the Louisiana delegation toured in Toa Baja, which took on 8 feet of water in some places, were mostly made of concrete and stone.
"They are going to have a long way to go," Waskom said. "It was such a large storm, and to exacerbate that, it's an island, so getting things there is going to be a struggle."
Waskom said he was struck by the scale of devastation on the island. As his plane approached Puerto Rico on the evening of Oct. 28, much of the island was dark except pockets of light — the largest of which was San Juan.
"There's a long way to go," Waskom said.
Curtis echoed his concerns.
Louisiana's state-wide donation drive to aid hurricane victims in Puerto Rico has collected 100 pallets of goods that will be shipped to the island.
"The electrical infrastructure is what concerns me probably the most," Curtis said. "How do you reestablish almost a complete power grid on the island of Puerto Rico? That's going to be a long-term project."
Curtis was also struck by the impact on the island's transportation infrastructure.
"You have to figure out how do you prioritize that and get the right equipment there to take care of it," he said.
Curtis, who has led the Louisiana National Guard since 2011, served as chief of staff for the Joint Forces Headquarters in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, after serving in Iraq.
He said he was touched by the optimism toward recovery that he saw in Puerto Rico.
"They had such a positive attitude about where they are and where they are headed. That really struck a chord with me," Curtis said.