UCF Scholar’s Study Could Help Strengthen Disaster Preparedness and Response in U.S. Territories

Dr. Sara Belligoni

Dr. Sara Belligoni, a Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of Central Florida (UCF), and UCF Alumna, may do more than advance her education and career. She may also help communities prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters such as tropical storms and hurricanes. Her recent study, “Held in the Grip: Political Status, Governing Institutions, and Emergency Management Procedural Arrangements in the Cases of Florida and Puerto Rico” has recently been published in the peer-reviewed journal, Politics & Policy

In 2017, Dr. Belligoni watched as Hurricane Maria swept across Puerto Rico. A year later, Michael, another devastating hurricane, slammed into the Florida Panhandle. The storms may have been similar — both reached Category 5 strength — but there were vast differences in the devastating toll that followed. Nearly 3,000 deaths were attributed to Maria in Puerto Rico, while fewer than 60 died as a result of Michael in the U.S. mainland.

Dr. Belligoni believed that some of the differences in preparedness and response could be traced back to a key difference in the two places: Florida is a U.S. state, while Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory. 

“I argued that U.S. states retain more legislative autonomy and representation than U.S. territories in the U.S. Congress, responsible for the emergency management budget,” Dr. Belligoni says. “The procedural arrangements of the Florida emergency management system resulted in a more effective response to Hurricane Michael. Puerto Rico does not have a strong advocacy power in Congress, as its Representative is not entitled to voting rights, for example, and may not be able to push for obtaining more emergency preparedness and response resources.”

Not only did the study support Dr. Belligoni’s hypotheses, but it also led her to suggest potential improvements. Dr. Belligoni suggested coordination be strengthened between federal and local officials, and more effective procedures between the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Regions 2 and 4, responsible for Puerto Rico and the nearby state of Florida, should be in place, to strengthen the Emergency Management Assistance Compact for an area like Puerto Rico. She believes a culture of preparedness is imperative, and lessons could be learned from other areas, like Hawai’i.

Devastating and life-altering natural hazards are inevitable. Dr. Belligoni hopes the U.S. government will use her research to find more equitable ways to prepare and to respond. “Studies like this one help understand where the major challenges occur while providing avenues for improvement,” she said.

Dr. Belligoni earned her PhD in Security Studies from the School of Politics, Security, and International Affairs at UCF.

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