The federal government’s chief watchdog slammed the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response to the hurricane that killed thousands of people in Puerto Rico last year, saying it was unprepared and failed to deploy enough qualified staff.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office’s report issued Tuesday said FEMA struggled with a record year for disasters on the mainland and Puerto Rico. Overall, the agency failed to adequately house disaster victims, distribute financial assistance in a timely fashion or do enough to prevent fraud.
For instance, scammers implemented “a well-organized and coordinated identity theft fraud scheme” in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and California that hadn’t shown up following previous disasters, according to the report.
The report’s criticism was especially pointed when it came to Hurricane Maria’s strike on Puerto Rico last September.
“They were not prepared to respond to an event like that,” said Chris Currie, the lead author of the report. “They were having a lot of trouble getting people there. And not just people, but qualified people.”
A report by George Washington University commissioned by Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello and released last week found that 2,975 people on the island died as a result of the storm. Other estimates have ranged as high as 5,000, but Rossello said the GWU figures would be used as the official tally.
President Donald Trump said last week that his administration “did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico” after Maria devastated the island.
The GAO report acknowledged factors outside of FEMA’s control that contributed to the poor response, including the island’s distance 1,000 miles from the U.S. mainland, its outdated infrastructure and the “limited local preparedness for a major hurricane.”
But the response was also hindered by FEMA’s lack of adequately trained staff — including those who speak Spanish — the report found.
“FEMA did not have enough bilingual employees to communicate with local residents or translate documents,” the GAO wrote, which “resulted in further delays while staff were reshuffled from other disasters to Puerto Rico.”
Even the fitness of those personnel was a problem. According to FEMA’s leadership, some of the personnel sent to the island weren’t physically able to handle the extreme environment.
The report described an agency stretched beyond its resources by an unprecedented sequence of storms and wildfires. Its staffing was down by about a third before Hurricane Harvey hit Texas — which was followed in rapid succession by Hurricane Irma striking Florida and then Maria.
At the height of the deployments, in October, more than half of FEMA staff were serving in a capacity for which they weren’t designated as “qualified.”
“By the time Maria hit Puerto Rico, they were down to the bottom of the barrel,” Currie said on a call with reporters.
The ripple effect eventually reached California. FEMA encountered initial delays in deploying personnel to the wildfires there last year because a majority of its workforce was already dispatched to support hurricane recovery efforts, according to the report.
It could take years for FEMA to dole out funding for long-term projects to rebuild storm-damaged infrastructure and other facilities. That is on top of $1.5 billion FEMA had obligated in public assistance grants to three states and two territories recovering from Harvey, Irma and Maria.
Administrative challenges in awarding those public assistance grants were tied to delays in removing debris, though the GAO highlighted bright spots where local and federal officials collaborated to overcome the problems. For instance, in Texas, officials arranged to have military personnel help move debris when they encountered problems.
In response to the GAO’s findings, the Department of Homeland Security, which includes FEMA, said the agency “is constantly reviewing its program delivery, decision-making processes, and response efforts to ensure that it can improve, minimize errors, and better serve survivors.”
In July, FEMA released its own report on its response to last year’s disasters, and the policy changes the agency was making as a result. Tuesday’s report said it’s “too soon to assess the adequacy of these actions as part of this review and whether the actions will have the intended impact.”
In a press conference Tuesday, Rossello said there were joint initiatives underway with FEMA to ensure a better response to a future hurricane. But he said it’s unreasonable to expect a drastic change in the island’s preparedness so long as Puerto Rico isn’t a state.
Puerto Rico is a territory whose residents are U.S. citizens by birth but lack voting representation in Congress. “We have to address the root of the problem,” Rossello said.
Since the start of his political career, Rossello has repeatedly pushed for Puerto Rico to become the 51st state, and he addressed the matter directly with Trump at a lunch with other governors earlier this year.
But as Trump himself has acknowledged, political realities are likely to prevent that from happening anytime soon: Puerto Ricans tend to support Democrats.
- FEMA Staffing Stretched Thin as Hurricane Season Gets Underway
- FEMA Reorganizing, Top Jobs Unfilled as Hurricane Season Gets Underway
- FEMA Chief Says Puerto Rico Needs $50 Billion to Rebuild
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