Politics

How the Pentagon Spun Hurricane Maria

U.S. officials inadvertently included a Bloomberg reporter on an internal email list. Here’s a glimpse into their bid to put relief efforts in a positive light.

Soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 1st Special Forces Command organize food and water deliveries for residents of Utuado, Puerto Rico, on Oct 5.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Late last month, Pentagon communications officials inadvertently included Bloomberg climate reporter Christopher Flavelle on an internal distribution list, in which Defense Department and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials discussed their evolving strategy for presenting the response to Hurricane Maria.

Despite repeatedly alerting officials to the error, Bloomberg continued receiving the emails for five days. Those messages, each of which was marked “unclassified,” offer a glimpse into the federal government’s struggle to convince the public that the response effort was going well. That struggle was compounded by the commander-in-chief, and eased only when public attention was pulled to a very different disaster. 

Below are passages from those messages, tied to the events that federal officials were trying to respond to.

Sept. 28: Eight days after Maria hit, coverage of the federal government’s response is getting more negative.
The Government Message: Pentagon officials tell staff to emphasize “coverage of life-saving/life-sustaining operations” and for spokespeople to avoid language about awaiting instructions from FEMA, “as that goes against the teamwork top-line message.”

Sept. 29: San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz criticizes Washington’s spin, calling Puerto Rico a “people-are-dying story.”
The Government Message: FEMA talking points ignore Cruz, instructing its officials to say that “the federal government’s full attention is on Hurricane Maria response.”

Sept. 30: Trump attacks the mayor’s “poor leadership ability.” The Pentagon worries that Trump’s “dialogue” with Cruz is becoming the story, with “many criticizing his lack of empathy.”
The Government Message: FEMA stresses its success in reaching “all municipalities in Puerto Rico.”

Oct. 1: Trump calls critics of the response “politically motivated ingrates.”
The Government Message: Defense staff admit that “the perception of USG response continues to be negative.” Spokespeople are told to say, “I am very proud of our DOD forces,” before conceding “there are some challenges to work through.”

Oct. 2: The massacre in Las Vegas dominates the headlines.
The Government Message: The shooting “has drawn mainstream TV attention away from Puerto Rico response,” FEMA says. Still, the roundup seems to have lost some of its previous optimism. It concludes, simply: “Negative tonality.”

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