US report criticizes FEMA response to Maria in Puerto Rico

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A federal report published Tuesday found that staff shortages and a lack of trained personnel slowed the U.S. government response to Hurricane Maria, a storm estimated to have killed nearly 3,000 people in Puerto Rico.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office said 54 percent of federal emergency personnel were not qualified to do the rescue work in October 2017, a month after the Category 4 hurricane hit the U.S. territory. The report also states there were logistical challenges due to the location of Puerto Rico and the neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands, and added that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had to assume many of the local government’s responsibilities given the loss of power and communications as well as “limited local preparedness for a major hurricane.”

Christopher Currie, the GAO’s director of emergency management issues, said in a phone interview that FEMA was already stretched thin by responding to hurricanes Harvey and Irma, as well as California wildfires.

“The response in Florida, Texas and California was about what we planned for,” he said. “In Puerto Rico, obviously, it was a much, much different story.”

FEMA did not anticipate not having the support of local government officials in Puerto Rico, who he said were still reeling from the hurricane — the strongest to hit the territory in nearly a century. In addition, the power grid was destroyed and 95 percent of cellphone towers were not working, leaving the island with no communication for almost a week. This meant officials did not immediately understand the scale of the damage. Hurricane Maria hit on Sept. 20 and is estimated to have caused $100 billion in damage.

“Once the scale was understood, that’s when FEMA called in the Department of Defense. They said, ‘We’re overwhelmed. ... We need help,’” Currie said. “From a FEMA standpoint, a couple of things happened that they were not anticipating that they probably could have.”

The report also said that FEMA lacked enough Spanish-speaking employees, and that some staffers were not physically fit enough to handle the “extreme or austere” environment.

Currie added that FEMA was already 30 percent understaffed after Hurricane Harvey, and that some personnel were already drained by the storms and fires that hit prior to Maria.

“By the time they got to Puerto Rico, they were very tired,” he said.

The report was issued nearly a week after U.S. President Donald Trump said his administration did a “fantastic job” responding to Hurricane Maria.

FEMA said in a statement that the GAO report captures the complexity of last year’s disasters, adding that the agency issued its own report in July and has already issued recommendations for improvements. The FEMA report in part found that it underestimated how many supplies were needed in Puerto Rico and how difficult it would be to get those to the U.S. territory after the hurricane. Officials said they have since increased the amount of supplies in the affected U.S. territories, improved staffers’ skills and readiness and updated to a satellite-based communication system, among other improvements.

The GAO report, however, said it was too soon to determine whether those actions are sufficient, and that a review would be issued in mid-2019. It also reported that FEMA identified a theft fraud “scheme it had not identified following prior disasters” that affected Texas, Florida, California, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The GAO report also stated that federal, state and local officials also struggled to find temporary housing for those affected by Hurricane Maria. Currently, tens of thousands of people remain without a proper roof at the peak of this year’s hurricane season.

Currie said the recovery from Hurricane Maria remains a big concern.

“There are just a number of huge challenges still to come,” he said.