'FEMA Has Been a Nightmare:' Epistemic Injustice in Puerto Rico

79 Pages Posted: 14 Sep 2018

Date Written: September 13, 2018


The continuing disaster in Puerto Rico, caused by the ravages of Hurricane Maria and federal inattention, cannot be understood without looking at the interrelated problems of power, bias, and epistemology.

Federal power and bias determined which dangers in Puerto Rico would be recognized by government officials, and which would be deemed too indeterminate to plan for and respond to: In the days following Maria’s assault on the island on September 20, 2017, officials such as FEMA’s Administrative head Brock Long, President Donald Trump, and several U.S. senators defended against accusations of an inept and paltry federal aid response by citing “logistics” and Puerto Rico’s location within a body of “big water,” indicating that the island’s topography and physical situation proved so epistemically inaccessible to them – so uncertain -- that they could not organize an effective relief response. I call this the federal government’s “uncertainty defense.”

Furthermore, the government’s putative uncertainty about Puerto Rico’s physical features bled into its on-the-ground engagement with its residents: Interviews with residents and responders reveal that FEMA sent to Puerto Rico personnel that 1) did not speak Spanish, 2) used technology to communicate with victims even though poor Puerto Ricans did not have access to intelligent devices and the power grid had been down since September 20, 3) gave out food boxes containing items laden with sugar and salt to victims with heart disease and diabetes, 4) did not reach people in mountainous regions, and 5) could not foresee that the elderly would constitute an especially vulnerable population. This means that Puerto Ricans’ culture, health, and patterns of living were regarded as indeterminacies that the federal government found impossible to calculate and so cope with after the storm.

However, insofar as President Trump and Administrator Long seek to marshal an uncertainty defense to explain their failure to provide meaningful aid to Puerto Ricans, their effort fails. An eloquent legal literature that deals with problems of epistemology and disaster exists, and has been written by Dan Farber, Cass Sunstein, and Robert Verchick. These scholars all define when hazards are discernible, and when they veer so beyond human ken as to become “uncertainties” that become impossible to strategize around in the event of a catastrophe. Their work helps us understand that the factors that Trump and Long characterized as unplannable logistics were not uncertainties at all, but rather “known knowns” that could have been calculated and planned for long in advance of the hurricane.

The real reason that Puerto Rico’s topography and people proved unfathomable to federal officials had nothing to do with their enigmatic qualities, but grew out of a phenomenon called “epistemic injustice,” which has been limned by the philosopher Miranda Fricker.

Deadly epistemic uncertainty did exist in Puerto Rico, however. While uncertainty and risk theorists usually gauge uncertainty from the perspective of governmental decision makers, uncertainty can be detected among the victims themselves: I call this victim uncertainty, and argue that it was caused by the government’s acts of epistemic injustice. Puerto Rican victims of Hurricane Maria experienced uncertainty because they could not predict that the government would prove so psychologically blind to their island’s basic features, and to their status as human beings with a particular culture and set of demographics, that its agents would not be able to help them when the time came. This uncertainty bolstered what is known in psychological writings as “uncertainty paralysis:” Victims’ uncertainty paralysis hampered their abilities to make the crucial decisions of whether to wait for government relief or engage in self-help during the exigencies of the storm.

Like the disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the lack of care that led to so many deaths in New Orleans in 2005, the repercussions of Puerto Rico 2017 will be felt for a long time. In this article, I argue that the government must attend to the problems of power and epistemology revealed by Hurricane Maria: It should do so by listening to the stories of subordinated populations, such as those in Puerto Rico, in order to understand whom they will be helping in foreseeable future disasters, and how to do so.

In this article, I set forth interviews with residents and responders in order to highlight the failures of the U.S. response in the fall of 2017. These interviews illustrate the deadly ways in which the government perpetuated epistemic injustice in the days before and after the storm, and how the victims themselves consequently experienced dangerous epistemic uncertainty. I also set forth recommendations for the critical narrative gathering necessary for transforming government “uncertainties” about subordinated populations into recognized facts: These may take place under the auspices of the Stafford Act, which authorizes the President to send federal agencies (including FEMA) to disaster zones, as well as FEMA policy.

Suggested Citation

Murray, Yxta Maya, 'FEMA Has Been a Nightmare:' Epistemic Injustice in Puerto Rico (September 13, 2018). Willamette Law Review, Forthcoming, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2018-34, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3249220

Yxta Maya Murray (Contact Author)

Loyola Law School Los Angeles ( email )

919 Albany Street
Los Angeles, CA 90015-1211
United States
(213)736-8169 (Phone)

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