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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Disasters of 2017

From the Government Accountability Office:
The federal government provided significant support to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria, but faced numerous challenges that complicated response efforts. FEMA efforts in Puerto Rico alone were the largest and longest single response in the agency's history. As of April 2018, FEMA had obligated over $12 billion for response and recovery for Hurricane Maria (see figure below) reflecting the scale and complexity of efforts given the widespread damage. FEMA tasked federal agencies with over 1,000 response mission assignments for Hurricanes Maria and Irma in the territories at a cost of over $5 billion, compared to about 400 such assignments for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and the California wildfires combined. For example, FEMA assigned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the mission to install over 1,700 emergency electricity generators in Puerto Rico, compared to the 310 for the response to Hurricane Katrina.

Nevertheless, GAO found that FEMA faced a number of challenges that slowed and complicated its response efforts to Hurricane Maria, particularly in Puerto Rico. Many of these challenges were also highlighted in FEMA's own 2017 hurricane after action report, including:
  • the sequential and overlapping timing of the three hurricanes—with Maria being the last of the three—caused staffing shortages and required FEMA to shift staff to the territories that were already deployed to other disasters;
  • logistical challenges complicated efforts to deploy federal resources and personnel quickly given the remote distance of both territories; and
  • limited preparedness by the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico for a Category 5 hurricane and incapacitation of local response functions due to widespread devastation and loss of power and communications led FEMA to assume response functions that territories would usually perform themselves.
The 2017 hurricanes and wildfires highlighted some longstanding issues and revealed other emerging response and recovery challenges. For example, the concurrent timing and scale of the disaster damages nationwide caused shortages in available debris removal contractors and delays in removing disaster debris—a key first step in recovery. In addition, FEMA's available workforce was overwhelmed by the response needs. For example, at the height of FEMA workforce deployments in October 2017, 54 percent of staff were serving in a capacity in which they did not hold the title of “Qualified”—according to FEMA's qualification system standards—a past challenge GAO has identified. FEMA officials noted that staff shortages, and lack of trained personnel with program expertise led to complications in its response efforts, particularly after Hurricane Maria.