FEMA Report Acknowledges Failures in Puerto Rico Disaster Response
FEMA acknowledged for the first time it failed to properly prepare for last year’s hurricane season and was unable to provide the support victims needed in the wake of an unprecedented season of catastrophic storms, according to an internal report released this week by the federal agency.
Most of the shortcomings focused on the response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and many of those outlined in the report — a lack of key supplies on the island before the storm, unqualified staff, and challenges with delivering emergency supplies — were detailed in a recent FRONTLINE and NPR documentary Blackout in Puerto Rico, slated to re-air July 17.
The FEMA report found that its warehouse in Puerto Rico was nearly empty when Hurricane Maria hit last September, without cots or tarps, and very low levels of food and water, as most of the supplies had been rerouted to the U.S. Virgin Islands following Hurricane Irma.
It also found the agency as a whole had been understaffed going into the hurricane season, leading to personnel shortages as well as problems with “workforce certification.” FRONTLINE and NPR examined internal documents that found nearly half the staff on the island after the storm was “untrained” or unqualified.”
By the time Maria hit Puerto Rico, the report found, most specialized disaster staff had already been deployed to the other storms.
The initial response was also hampered by huge communication challenges, the report said. Almost 95 percent of cell towers were down after the storm. But FEMA did not have enough working satellite phones to adequately spread to the island’s leadership, making it difficult to get a handle on the scope of the damage.
As emergency supplies arrived, the report found FEMA faced a major hurdle: it lacked visibility into what was being shipped by other government agencies or private sector partners, further hampering response decisions.
“Shipping containers often arrived in Puerto Rico labeled simply as ‘disaster supplies,’ requiring FEMA staff to unload and open containers to determine their contents,” the report stated.
The report also found FEMA struggled to track supplies from the mainland to the island and through distribution, saying the agency experienced “business process shortfalls.” FRONTLINE and NPR found serious flaws with many of the agency’s supply contracts.
According to the report, the agency had not prepared enough supply contracts in advance and ran out of key items like tarps before Maria even hit. The result was a flood of new contracting that overwhelmed agency staff. In each of the three years before 2017, FEMA’s contracts totaled $1.3 billion. But in responding to the three storms, FEMA issued more than $3.9 billion in contracts.
That lack of planning proved one of the agency’s biggest stumbling blocks to the response. The report found that the last FEMA disaster planning assessment for Puerto Rico was from 2012 and “underestimated the actual requirements in 2017.” In particular, the plans “did not address insufficiently maintained infrastructure (e.g., the electrical grid)” or the “financial liquidity challenges” facing the bankrupt Puerto Rican government.
FEMA’s report also acknowledged that the agency should have better anticipated the need for federal intervention on the island. The report said that in 2011, a separate report on a FEMA preparedness exercise in Puerto Rico “anticipated that the territory would require extensive federal support in moving commodities.”
One of the most critical of those commodities in the weeks after the storm were generators. But the agency didn’t have enough and was unable to quickly acquire more. While the agency ultimately installed more than 2,000 generators on Puerto Rico — a record number — FEMA only had 695 generators in stock when Maria hit and only had 31 on the island three days after the storm.
FEMA administrator Brock Long acknowledged in a foreword to the report that FEMA had work to do to improve its disaster response capability. “With this report, FEMA and the emergency management community have an opportunity to learn from the 2017 Hurricane Season and build a more prepared and resilient Nation,” Long wrote.