"Absolutely overwhelmed": FEMA stumbled badly in Puerto Rico, GAO says

The report says FEMA handled hurricanes and fires much more effectively on the U.S. mainland.

by Alex Lubben
Sep 4 2018, 4:53pm

In August, as the official death toll from Hurricane Maria was raised from 64 to nearly 3,000, President Trump praised his administration’s response. "I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico,” he said.

But the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) now says the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was overwhelmed by Hurricane Maria and stumbled badly in its recovery efforts. In a report issued Tuesday, the government watchdog said FEMA was understaffed and that the staff it did send to the island was unprepared to operate in a blackout and unqualified for their jobs.

For example: At the height of FEMA’s disaster response, in October of 2017, 54 percent of the FEMA workers did not meet the agency's own standards for disaster response, according to the report. In Puerto Rico, many of FEMA’s workers didn’t speak Spanish.

“They were having a lot of trouble getting people there. And not just people, but qualified people,” Chris Currie, the director for emergency management issues at the Government Accountability Office, told reporters in a conference call Tuesday. “By the time Maria hit Puerto Rico, they were already down to the bottom of the barrel” in terms of staffing.

Read: FEMA is facing hurricane season with a vastly depleted workforce

But it wasn’t just the massive storms that depleted the workforce. As the hurricane season was starting, the FEMA workforce was down by over 30 percent, according to the report. While the agency was tied up responding to other major disasters, like Hurricane Harvey in Houston and Hurricane Irma in Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico was hurt most by the workforce shortage.

“They were absolutely overwhelmed by Maria”

“They were absolutely overwhelmed by Maria,” Currie said. “By the time Maria hit, a lot of the people were reservists and people who had not been fully trained.”

Staff were deployed to work in programs that they hadn’t been trained in, Currie told reporters. Some FEMA workers, for example, didn’t know how the agency’s temporary housing program worked, though they were tasked with helping administer it.

The watchdog also found evidence of a “well-organized and coordinated identity-theft fraud scheme” across all of the disaster areas, which it had never seen in prior disasters.

In addition to staffing shortages, FEMA’s work in Puerto Rico was held up because of the widespread power outages after the storm, which plunged the entire island into darkness. But in the run-up to the storm, FEMA knew that power and communications outages would affect Puerto Rico should a hurricane hit. “They had that information, and they didn’t do as good of a job as they could’ve done,” Currie said.

Read: FEMA has been deleting facts about Puerto Rico from its website

While Maria overwhelmed the agency, the responses to disasters on the U.S. mainland to various hurricanes and wildfires that struck for the most part rolled out as expected, according to Currie. And FEMA has increased its workforce in 2018 to increase its ability to respond to multiple disasters at once, according to the report.

But progress will be slow. The office has made a number of suggestions around growing the agency’s workforce, which the report says FEMA has accepted but won’t be able to fully implement until 2020.

The GAO's investigation was prompted by requests from several legislators and congressional committees. The report was sent to more than 40 members of Congress on Tuesday.

Cover: View of a Puerto Rican flag placed on a pair of shoes among hundreds displayed in memory of those killed by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rican Capitol, in San Juan on June 1, 2018. (Photo: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)