Holding the Government Accountable

Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Plan Shrouded in Secrecy

A Puerto Rican family signals for help four days after Hurricane Maria makes landfall. (Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico this September, the category five storm left widespread destruction in its wake. Communities trying to pick up the pieces faced wrecked homes and businesses, knocked-out power lines and water systems, and broken communications.

If key government disaster planning is well communicated and understood by people on the ground before a disaster strikes, it can make it much easier to navigate the inevitable chaos and confusion a storm like this brings ashore. Unfortunately, this was not the case for Puerto Rico’s hurricane disaster plan.

In October, investigative journalism group ProPublica reported that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) declined to make the Puerto Rico Hurricane Annex plan public. This annex is a major document that outlines the priorities, steps, and timelines for Puerto Rico’s hurricane response and recovery. Congress pushed FEMA on this point during an October 31 hearing of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC), with Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) questioning FEMA Administrator William Brock Long about the document’s secrecy. He was unsure why it remained under wraps. According to Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI), FEMA did not disclose the document at the request of the Puerto Rico government.

As of this writing, the document still has not seen public release.

The secrecy around Puerto Rico’s hurricane response and recovery plan is an odd and troubling aspect of September’s major disaster, as it is by no means required or common for this type of plan to be kept private. For example, the equivalent annex for Hawaii, which shows the character and extent of a hurricane response and recovery plan, is public and contains valuable details for anyone needing to coordinate with the federal and state governments. The document discusses procedures for establishing evacuation centers, protocols for public communications, and plans for providing health care, among other important elements of disaster response and recovery.

Similarly, the Puerto Rico hurricane annex is a planning document intended not only for federal officials, but also for a host of others, from state and local government responders to volunteer organizations and the public. These stakeholders should not be kept out of the loop; in fact, involvement with volunteers and the public, both before and after disaster strikes, is a common theme in FEMA planning documents.

For example, FEMA’s National Response Framework, the central guide on how the nation responds to all types of disasters, states that, “Layered, mutually supporting capabilities of individuals, communities, the private sector, NGOs, and governments at all levels allow for coordinated planning in times of calm and effective response in times of crisis.” Throughout the document are descriptions of the need to involve “individuals, families, households, communities, the private and nonprofit sectors, faith-based organizations . . .” as well as governments to ensure everyone is prepared. FEMA’s Guide for All-Hazard Emergency Operations Planning, the parent document to the still-secret Puerto Rico hurricane annex, makes similar points and is filled with steps and procedures requiring input from and coordination of non-governmental entities.

The public must be aware of disaster plans. Keeping disaster response plans secret would be like keeping school fire drill instructions hidden from the teachers and students.

In November, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Antonio Rosselló Nevares testified before Congress to answer questions about the response to the hurricane. Members of Congress wanted to know the status of recovery, including why electrical power was not yet restored to a majority of residents. They also wanted to know whether the local power company had been properly prepared to initiate a mutual aid process when hurricane Maria struck in order to quickly bring in outside support.

Keeping the Puerto Rico hurricane annex under wraps was both unnecessary and harmful to the disaster recovery efforts. Public disclosure of the document could help answer Congress’s questions and shed light on whether the response and recovery plan was followed properly and if the plan was even sufficient to begin with. Its release could also clarify how to improve planning for future disasters. FEMA should ensure that similar documents of other states and territories are available to all who are part of the response and recovery process, not just government officials.