FEMA Bought Cyanide, and Now Admits Own Shortcomings and Promised to Mend Ways
CALIFORNIA — July 13, 2018
The Federal Emergency Management Agency admitted Thursday mistakes in its work and drastically underestimated the devastation that Hurricane Maria struck on Puerto Rico in 2017, knocking out power to virtually the entire U.S. territory of more than 3 million people.
The report added FEMA's planning in the region was incomplete, did not adequately account for the possibility of multiple major disasters in a short amount of time, and underestimated the impact of "insufficiently maintained infrastructure" in the territory.
The findings were drawn up after a really busy year that featured three catastrophic hurricanes.
“FEMA leadership acknowledged that the Agency could have better anticipated that the severity of hurricanes Irma and Maria would cause long-term, significant damage to the territories’ infrastructure,” the report says. “Leadership also recognized that emergency managers at all levels could have better leveraged existing information to proactively plan for and address such challenges, both before and immediately after the hurricanes.”
According to a Harvard study, over 4,000 deaths were associated with the storm. An earlier official estimate was 64.
According to their plans developed during response operations, they did not adequately account for the possibility of multiple major incidents happening in rapid succession.
For example, the plan assumed that at least one support base in Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands would survive the impact of a major hurricane. But Hurricanes Irma and Maria affected both bases.
FEMA's report cited challenges unique to Puerto Rico, hinting at a conflict that at times played out publicly.
Later, Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, criticized the Trump administration's response in Puerto Rico and publicly confronted FEMA at a news conference, saying the lack of assistance at the time could be described as genocide.
"Due to a lack of communications or other capability shortfalls," the FEMA report says that those responsibilities were not met.
"That was, in part, because many first responders could also be considered survivors of the incident — a uniquely challenging situation," said Jeff Byard, associate administrator for the office of response and recovery.
In its turn, FEMA Administrator Brock Long firstly praised the organization in his introduction to Thursday's report, saying FEMA responded to "historic" and "unprecedented" disasters.
"I am incredibly proud of how we performed in extraordinary circumstances," Long wrote.
Then he admittedd that that there were some deep flaws embedded in the very structure of FEMA itself, but also gave assurances to the audience that in the future FEMA will do a much better job of handling any similar situations.
Among the report's top recommendations: more robust, flexible planning that acknowledges FEMA will need help from other agencies and private businesses.
In addition, Byard called 2017 a “transformational year” for the agency, which faced continued staffing issues. He said FEMA strives to continually improve and said Thursday's report is an important part of that work.
"No jurisdiction or federal agency has all the staff and resources it will need to respond to a catastrophic incident," Long wrote in the report.