The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) admitted through an internal report that the agency had not adequately prepared for the onslaught of the 2017 hurricane season and that such missteps took a toll on the island of Puerto Rico in particular. That admission seemingly vindicates the many Puerto Ricans who have repeatedly criticized the agency’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
An internal report released Thursday assessing FEMA’s response to Hurricanes Maria, Harvey, and Irma in 2017 reveals that the agency struggled to execute relief efforts, in addition to lacking full staff and failing to coordinate at a local level.
According to the agency’s own findings, FEMA was unprepared for the scale of the disasters. The agency’s staff was also around 5,000 people short, something that impacted the agency’s ability to respond to crises.
“The response to the hurricanes demonstrated the need for emergency managers at all levels to improve collaboration with the critical infrastructure sectors,” reads the report’s opening letter, authored by FEMA administrator Brock Long. “These disasters demonstrate that our current organizing structures are insufficient to promote this collaboration.”
Long goes on to advise that FEMA should revise both the National Response Framework and the Response Federal Interagency Operational Plan in order to improve in the future.
FEMA and its partners working at the territory and federal levels “faced challenges supplying limited temporary power generation capacity,” Long also notes, indicating that investment in “resilient electrical grids” will be crucial to preventing another tragedy.
Another glaring problem singled out by Long is the complexity inherent within FEMA itself.
“FEMA needs to simplify the process of applying for assistance to make our programs easier to navigate,” Long states.
When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, FEMA notes, the agency had minimal information about the island’s condition, including the state of hospitals and schools. That uncertainty persisted for the first 72 hours after the storm, during which time residents were dealing with the beginnings of what would ultimately become the longest blackout in U.S. history.
And while the official government death toll from Maria remains at 64, research by the New York Times last December placed that number closer to 1,000. A study released by Harvard in May has placed the death toll as high as 5,740, more than 70 times the official count.
FEMA’s admissions were only made public thanks to the efforts of the group Democracy Forward, which requested the report via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The advocacy organization later sued after their May request went ignored, seemingly pushing FEMA to release the document on Thursday night.
The current report offers a few notable differences from a draft copy obtained earlier by the New York Times. Missing from the official report is a paragraph noting that FEMA relied on a five-year-old earthquake and tsunami plan to address the hurricanes. Also missing was an admission that there were breakdowns in recording meals and water totals delivered to the island.
Government reports often undergo intensive edits and the Times notes that the differences here are considered minor. However, both versions point to the agency recognizing its significant shortcomings.
FEMA’s admissions in the final draft are a pivot away from much of the rhetoric that has come out of the Trump administration in the months since Maria made landfall in September 2017. The federal government has repeatedly defended the agency’s actions and FEMA itself has maintained that the agency’s response to the disaster was effective.
But Puerto Ricans largely disagree. Many protested FEMA’s inadequate response to the island’s tragedy, long before the agency’s internal report ever came to light.
Julio López Varona, an organizer at the Center for Popular Democracy, told ThinkProgress on Friday morning via email that FEMA’s acknowledgement of the “inadequacy of their response” was a “welcome change” but that for Puerto Ricans, the admission may be cold comfort.
“Over the last 9 months, community members and activists have repeatedly pointed to the flawed response of the federal government to Hurricane Maria and the role that FEMA has played in providing support to the island,” Varona said.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz expressed similar condemnation a day earlier on Thursday.
“They [FEMA] thought that anything that has happened before will work in Puerto Rico,” she told the Times. The government, she said, “was more preoccupied with the political discourse than with helping people.”
Sen. Eduardo Bhatia, the minority leader of Puerto Rico’s Senate and a member of the Popular Democratic Party, told ThinkProgress via email that FEMA’s admission vindicated the sentiments of Puerto Ricans.
“The admission by FEMA of how inadequate the response was on the island of Puerto Rico after [Hurricane] Maria simply evinces what the people of Puerto Rico have been saying,” Bhatia wrote.
The island’s present-day problems endure 10 months after Maria. Some 60,000 Puerto Ricans are still living under the blue tarps given by FEMA to stand in place of functioning roofs, with the 2018 hurricane season well underway.
In addition to housing, water and electricity remain an issue. A report released Wednesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that dozens of small water systems serving thousands of people on the island suffered severe damage during the storm, with many still in a deteriorated state. The report notes that the EPA and FEMA have yet to release a detailed assessment of Maria’s impact on such water systems.
Additionally, many of those on the island with restored power are relying on generators rather than a functioning grid.
The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the island’s power company, is also in turmoil. After the resignation of CEO Walter Higgins after only four months, board member Rafael Diaz-Granados was named to take his place. But five of PREPA’s seven board members resigned on Thursday amid outrage over Diaz-Granados’ $750,000 salary, a significant hike over Higgins’ $450,000 base pay. PREPA, which is bankrupt, has now been through four different CEOs since Maria made landfall.
This article has been updated to include comments from Sen. Bhatia.