Major hurricanes, fires, and other disasters had a huge impact on American communities last year, affecting millions of people. This followed devastation from similar, record-shattering disasters in 2017, all part of an increasing trend that has been apparent for more than a decade. Have federal agencies responsible for response and recovery learned from these events? Unfortunately, a bizarrely terse Pentagon report does not provide evidence of this.
The Department of Defense (DoD) plays a vital role in most large U.S. disaster responses, as was shown during recent hurricanes. That role is even more important when the affected region is an island or otherwise difficult to reach, such as in in 2017 after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, when DoD was tasked with transporting urgent supplies and equipment from mainland locations using its cargo assets. The Navy also sent one of its hospital ships to the island, along with other military medical support. In fact, DoD components are part of a set of ten federal agencies deemed critical for disaster response. For example, the Army Corps of Engineers is the primary federal agency for coordinating post-disaster public-works and engineering-related support.
Through the fiscal year 2019 Defense Authorization bill, Congress required the Pentagon to submit a report on the “preparedness of DOD in providing support to non-contiguous States and Territories in the aftermath of applicable natural and man-made disasters, threats, and emergencies.” The required report was made public in response to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by the Federation of American Scientists.
Oddly, the “report” is really a barely two-page letter to Congress. Rather than detailing challenges to disaster response operations and the DoD’s efforts to overcome them, the letter provides only four paragraphs of substance. For example, the letter states, “DoD preparedness is tested almost every year by real-world disasters in non-contiguous States and territories.” The letter then simply lists what it considers relevant disasters with no explanatory text. It also lists the disaster-related exercises it participated in, again with no text or accompanying documentation. Needless to say, this is not the level of detail Congress needs to properly oversee this essential mission.
DoD apparently spent $1,410 to prepare the information contained in the two-page letter.
In stark contrast to the DoD letter, a December 2018 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report detailed some shortcomings of the Army Corps of Engineers’ disaster preparations. The office conducted a comprehensive examination of whether both the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Corps have adequate contracts in place in advance of disasters. The federal government needs to very quickly respond with the delivery of critical goods and services, such as food, water, and the restoration of electricity. Federal agencies are required by law to establish contracts for most of these needs before a disaster occurs in order to avoid costly and less-effective last-minute scrambles, such as the Corps’ hurried process to find contractors to help restore electrical power in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017. GAO reported that the Army Corps of Engineers needs to improve its advanced contracting for establishing temporary electric power, as well as for providing temporary roofing and debris removal.
Of course, the DoD letter described none of the GAO findings and recommendations.
FEMA, which has the primary federal role for disaster coordination, has been more forthcoming. The agency released a report last July, the 2017 Hurricane Season: FEMA After-Action Report, where it acknowledged that it lacked sufficient pre-established contracts and that its personnel struggled to ensure billions of dollars were spent effectively. However, as POGO noted, the report, though helpful by laying out many lessons learned from that year’s storms, lacked many details and timelines as to how and when the agency would implement specific improvements.
These reports cast doubt on whether federal agencies are striving with enough fervor to improve response and recovery abilities before disaster strikes. Congress should demand to see evidence of adequate agency planning and preparations, and proof that officials are taking every necessary step to ensure that devastated communities can expect timely and robust support. Both the House of Representatives and Senate should make oversight of FEMA, DoD, and other key response agencies a high priority, including by holding hearings.