It only took the Federal Emergency Management Agency nine months to assess what Puerto Ricans have been saying since Hurricane Maria pummeled the island last September: that the disaster relief agency was really not prepared. At all.
On Thursday night, FEMA released an internal report assessing the agency’s response to the 2017 hurricane season, which was the worst year ever recorded for natural disasters in the U.S. Though Donald Trump has claimed, amazingly, that Maria was “not a real catastrophe like Katrina,” and rated the administration’s response “a 10” (I would agree, if the rating were out of 10,000,000,000), the report (and many, many before it) very much says otherwise.
It has been estimated that more than 4,000 people died in the aftermath of the hurricane. As the island slowly rebuilds, nearly half of the evacuees living in Florida say that the scarce economy and infrastructure means they won’t return any time soon.
Buzzfeed’s analysis of the FEMA report explains that the agency set out without a clear understanding of the situation:
Notably, for the first 72 hours after the storm hit Puerto Rico, FEMA “had little information about the status of infrastructure, including hospitals, roads and water facilities,” according to the agency.
“Because FEMA and its partners lacked situational awareness early in the response, the Agency initially could not be certain that FEMA and interagency partner efforts were sufficient to stabilize the incident,” it found.
For one week after the hurricane, FEMA did not have information about the status of 24 out of 52 wastewater treatment plants or 37 of 69 hospitals.
The report also highlights suffering caused by a major lack of resources, including:
- The agency was understaffed by thousands of workers, making it hard to manage demand of resources and track supplies
- The satellite phones provided by FEMA didn’t work in the Caribbean
- FEMA’s stock of warehouse supplies (like meals) in Puerto Rico were too low
- There weren’t enough power generators to meet Puerto Rico’s needs, leaving many homes, hospitals and emergency rooms without power
Curiously, FEMA released the report one week after nonprofit group Democracy Forward sued FEMA for not responding to a May Freedom of Information Act request, and days after the New York Times obtained an advanced draft that admitted FEMA responded to the disaster like a tsunami—as opposed to a hurricane that had wrecked an entire island. (The final draft has dropped this claim, the Times notes).
While the report affirms what people in Puerto Rico have been saying since the devastating hurricane hit, its conclusion does little to help the island in the wake of another disaster. The Times reports:
The report underscores how ill-prepared the agency was to manage a crisis outside the continental United States, like the one in Puerto Rico. And it urges communities in harm’s way not to count so heavily on FEMA in a future crisis.
“The 2017 hurricane season showed that all levels of government — and individual families — need to be much better prepared with their own supplies, particularly in remote or insular areas where commodities take longer to deliver,” the agency administrator, Brock Long, wrote in the draft report. “In Puerto Rico, little of the communications infrastructure survived Hurricane Maria, and as a result, it was extremely difficult for the local, territory, or federal agencies to know what was needed and where in the immediate aftermath of the storm.”
Well, maybe Puerto Rico would not have to rely on FEMA as much if Congress would stop royally fucking it over in the first place.