Holding the Government Accountable

Diminishing Lives Lost Instead of Leading During a Disaster

Condado, San Juan, Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.(Photo: USDA / Sgt. Jose Diaz-Ramos, Puerto Rico National Guard)

It should go without saying that disaster preparation is about protecting lives, not protecting reputations.

As we write this, millions of people in the path of Hurricane Florence are preparing for potential devastation from high winds, heavy rains, and coastal storm surge. The leadership and staff of federal, state, and local agencies are heavily engaged in evacuations, establishing temporary shelters, and readying for what could be a long recovery from power outages and loss of other essential services.

However, during these hours before Hurricane Florence comes ashore, we have seen defensive statements about past performance during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. President Trump has touted the response and recovery as “incredibly successful.” He also accused the opposing political party of peddling false information about the number of people who died due to Maria. This bombast came in reaction to a recent study by George Washington University, commissioned by the governor of Puerto Rico, which upped the official death toll from 64 to nearly 3,000.

Gaslighting the country by pretending that thousands did not lose their lives is beneath the Office of the President.

We expect more from our leaders. Rather than diminish the tragedy in Puerto Rico, the nation should focus on preventing death and suffering in the disasters ahead. Any death caused by the government’s failure to learn from its mistakes is one too many.

The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has been working to push our government to do better. Last fall, we submitted testimony to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee describing lessons learned from previous efforts to respond to major disasters. We hoped to see evidence of progress toward the level of preparation our nation needs.

But here we are, a year later, and we have little confidence that the federal government has learned those critical lessons.

President Trump stated, “Well, I think Puerto Rico was incredibly successful.” Everyone should agree that the response to the 2017 hurricanes had massive shortcomings. Even the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) admitted in its 2017 Hurricane Season After-Action Report that it has many problems to fix. In our analysis of the report, POGO pointed out steps to address the issues FEMA identified, as well as numerous additional problems the Agency, the White House, and Congress must resolve.

President Trump also declared Tuesday that the federal government is “sparing no expense” in responding to Hurricane Florence. At best, this is a partial answer to the wrong question. Acting only during the final days before a hurricane is too little too late—and we should know this by now, many times over. The federal government simply can’t rush to prepare for a major disaster in just a few days. Successful response is based on early planning and long-term coordination between government officials, local communities, the private sector, and individuals. Key response supplies can and must be stockpiled months in advance, and disaster-response staff must have proper training. Meanwhile, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) has raised the question of whether the Administration diverted critical FEMA training funds.

Rather than spend time and energy inserting partisanship into a crisis, this is a time to lead the nation calmly and clearly. We need candid assessments of past mistakes in disaster response and recovery, which can provide critical lessons for future disasters. Gaslighting the country by pretending that thousands did not lose their lives is beneath the Office of the President.