Passing Grade? Lessons Learned from the 2017 Disasters

(Photo: U.S. Army / Summer Barkley)

This week, Puerto Rico’s electric power company reestablished service to all of its customers, about eleven long months after last summer’s hurricanes devastated the island and left most people there in the dark.

Meanwhile, other recent headlines—of California wildfires affecting tens of thousands of people, threats of severe storms in the Pacific, and continued nervousness over volcanos in Hawaii—became powerful reminders that natural disasters can have a tremendous and devastating impact. While every such calamity has grave consequences for the affected individuals and communities, the nation so far has fortunately not seen the same level of major disasters as last year. As POGO has written previously, the devastation of 2017 stretched to the breaking point the nation’s ability to effectively respond and recover. And multiple disasters resulting in billions of dollars in damage each year are part of a clear trend.

Is the nation now adequately prepared for this reality? Last month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which has the central role in coordinating disaster response and recovery, released a major report describing lessons learned from last year’s hurricanes. The 2017 Hurricane Season FEMA After-Action Report provides new details on the extent of damage from the record-breaking storms, and equally important, on the federal response and recovery efforts. It correctly lists a number of shortcomings from both before and after last summer’s hurricanes.

The head of FEMA, Administrator Brock Long, acknowledged that the “unprecedented scale” of the disasters “stretched response and recovery capabilities at all levels of government.” The report detailed a record-setting $265 billion damage from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria alone. Those storms and the wildfires in California led close to 4.8 million households to register for assistance, topping the total from the entire decade before. Response and recovery operations faced coordination and communication problems, resulting in delayed deliveries of needed goods and services to large numbers of disaster survivors, such as medical care and food aid. Administrator Long promised that FEMA will “take bold action to improve the Nation’s overall readiness and resiliency for future incidents.”

However, the lessons-learned report did not describe many of the missteps the agency made. For example, the report did not mention that FEMA’s hurricane plans for Puerto Rico were so inadequate that the agency decided to instead use an older plan designed to respond to a tsunami or earthquake. The New York Times reported that an earlier version of the report it had obtained had clearly discussed that decision. Nor did the recovery efforts meet previous FEMA goals for restoration of most basic services such as electric power in Puerto Rico, in a reasonable timeframe.

Very notably, the report failed to describe the number of deaths due to Hurricane Maria, especially in Puerto Rico. While the official federal government count is 64 confirmed deaths, the Puerto Rican government now acknowledges a much higher estimate of more than 1,400 deaths due to the hurricane and its aftermath. Other estimates put the death toll on the island even higher.

The FEMA report does outline many important solutions that would lead to improved response and recovery capabilities. Noting disaster-related infrastructure challenges, demonstrated especially in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria knocked out 95 percent of electric power with widespread outages lasting for months, Administrator Long called for local electrical power authorities to invest in more resilient systems. FEMA has also decided to stockpile hundreds of additional electrical power generators. Similarly, the report included statements about the need for more resilient communications systems to better withstand disasters. The report also described the importance of improved communications equipment with the ability to work independently from normal communications grids.

However, in too many instances, the FEMA report only gave brief outlines of solutions with little specificity. For example, in each of the five major focus areas detailed in the report, FEMA repeated the need to “revise the National Response Framework and Response Federal Interagency Operational Plan to emphasize stabilization of critical lifelines and coordination across critical infrastructure sectors.” In other words, FEMA is saying it should plan better in the future. However, the agency’s relevant planning documents have not been updated to describe these new details, such as timelines for implementation.

In one specific and critical portion of the report, FEMA acknowledged shortcomings in its quantity of stockpiled disaster-response supplies. Its network of eight regional warehouses across the nation provide a vital service, and last year’s hurricanes showed the current limits of and the need to increase the quantity of supplies. (Earlier this year, POGO staff visited one of these centers, in Frederick, Maryland.)

FEMA has made some improvements in the stockpiling of supplies, including storing more disaster response supplies in Puerto Rico, noting that the warehouse there lacked adequate amounts of commodities before Hurricane Maria. FEMA proposes some useful and laudable improvements, such as more personnel support at the warehouse and more consideration to transportation needs near disaster areas. However, other needed improvements, such as increasing the amount of commodities throughout the system, or a review of the quantity, types, and geographic locations of commodities necessary for future responses, are not mentioned in the lessons-learned report.

Federal contracting for disasters is another long-recognized problem area. Federal agencies rely heavily on private companies to provide critical goods and services for response and recovery. Agencies award contracts worth billions of dollars to supply food and water and repair electric grids, to name just three of the myriad supplies and services needed by disaster victims. As POGO previously reported, it is critical that FEMA and other agencies carefully oversee contracts and screen companies to not only protect federal dollars, but to ensure that those recovering from disasters get what they need as quickly as possible. However, this does not always happen.

One recurring theme is the need for pre-established contracts for basic goods such as food and plastic tarps for temporary building repairs. After the 2017 hurricanes, the federal government obligated more than $3.9 billion in contracts, as compared to only $1.3 billion during the previous three fiscal years combined, greatly straining its ability to adequately manage and oversee that money. Many of the contracting problems and solutions detailed by the report were previously highlighted by government reports, the media, and watchdog groups like POGO. Congressional hearings in both the House and Senate also raised important criticisms and questions. FEMA acknowledged the contracting problems and stated that it is considering increasing the number of pre-established contracts for future disasters. However, once again, there is no timeline for when FEMA will accomplish this goal.

FEMA deserves credit for acknowledging many of the problems with past response and recovery efforts and proposing solutions to address them. However, FEMA and the Administration must recognize that last summer was not an anomaly, and must quickly prepare for major disasters of the same or larger magnitude. As POGO described previously in an article and congressional testimony, ever-larger disasters are the “new normal.”

It is tempting to assign a grade for the degree to which the federal government learned its lessons since last year’s hurricane season. But we’ll refrain from doing so. We can say that there is much work ahead for FEMA and other agencies at all levels of government. The ultimate test will be the next major disaster.