FEMA was ill-prepared for Maria’s widespread devastation in Puerto Rico, report says

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer
July 13, 2018, 5:32:06 PM EDT

Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 as a Category 4 storm. The historic storm knocked out all of the island’s electric power and most of its cellphone towers.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was already managing extreme disasters in other parts of the United States, such as in Florida and Texas.

At the time, Hurricane Irma had left 6 million people without power in Florida, and Hurricane Harvey had forced 780,000 from their homes due to extreme flooding in Texas.

FEMA released a report on Thursday, July 12, saying that the agency was underprepared for Hurricane Maria.

hurricane maria puerto rico 6-18-2018

This June 18, 2018 photo shows an aerial view of the Amelia neighborhood in the municipality of Catano, Puerto Rico. Thousands of people across Puerto Rico are still living in damaged homes, protected by blue plastic tarps, nine months since Hurricane Maria devastated the island. (AP Photo/Dennis M. Rivera)

When Hurricane Maria devastated the island, FEMA’s warehouse in Puerto Rico was nearly empty. Its contents were rushed to aid the U.S. Virgin Islands, which were hammered by another storm, Hurricane Irma, two weeks prior. There was not a single tarpaulin or cot left in stock.

The report said that the agency underestimated how much food and fresh water it would need and how challenging it would be to get additional supplies to the island.

These shortcomings and others are detailed in the recent FEMA report, which assesses the agency’s response to the 2017 storm season.

The after-action report describes an initially chaotic and disorganized relief effort on the island.

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The report said that FEMA failed to take into account the logistical problems that its own disaster planning drills had shown it could face when coping with a catastrophe in Puerto Rico.

The agency said it had not bargained on the local government’s cashflow problems and was not prepared for Puerto Rico’s “insufficiently maintained infrastructure (e.g., the electrical grid).”

FEMA had thousands fewer workers than it needed, and many of those it had were not qualified to handle such major catastrophes, according to the report.

The agency had to borrow many workers from other agencies to help it manage the immense demand for essentials in the aftermath of the storms.

Puerto Rico Maria

Rescue personnel from the Emergency Management Agency drive through a flooded road after Hurricane Maria hit the eastern region of the island, in Humacao, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, September 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

The report confirms many of the criticisms that have been leveled at the agency, especially in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico is among the most vulnerable areas for hurricane damage in the Atlantic. Both the northern and southern coasts of the island are hit frequently by hurricanes and major hurricanes, on par with southern Florida and the Outer Banks of the United States.

Return period for hurricanes P.R. vs FL

"The report proves what was evident to all in Puerto Rico. FEMA was unprepared and they lacked a sense of urgency, which resulted in neglect, which in turn resulted in the loss of lives," San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz said in a statement to ABC News.

Cruz has been an outspoken critic of the federal government’s response to the storm.

In three weeks between Aug. 25 and Sept. 20, hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria made landfall in the U.S. in rapid succession. Shortly after these storms, historic wildfires devastated California.

The wildfires and hurricanes collectively affected more than 47 million people, approximately 15 percent of the U.S. population.

Harvey, Maria and Irma each rank among the top-five costliest hurricanes on record.

“Last year AccuWeather forecast economic tolls prior to and during Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria that far surpassed any other estimates at the time, including those from Moody’s. As AccuWeather accurately predicted, the cost of these three devastating storms far exceeded the economic losses of Katrina and Sandy,” said AccuWeather Founder and President Dr. Joel N. Myers.

“Our unique ability to predict and determine the extent of these disasters and resultant losses further ahead than any other source results from 56 years of AccuWeather’s superior meteorological expertise combined with our proprietary models and the largest collection of data, exclusive patented technology and AI. Now, almost one year later after the destructive 2017 hurricanes, the evidence is becoming clearer that the economic toll is climbing closer to the $400 billion number we stated nearly a year ago. This number is supported by factoring in the nearly 5 million people who registered for government aid per the recent FEMA report. As we stated last fall these losses from the hurricanes and wildfires approached 2 percent of the nation’s GDP. Our prediction, which was higher and closer than any other estimate, further confirms AccuWeather’s leadership and superior data and forecasts used to predict severe weather events and their impact when lives and property are on the line," Myers said.

The combination of multiple extreme disasters led to "unprecedented” demands on the agency’s staffing, resources and budget, according to the report.

“With every response or recovery effort, we take with us lessons learned that help build a nation-wide culture of preparedness and shape the way FEMA and the emergency management community respond to and recover from future disasters,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement.

Trump Fema

President Donald Trump walks with FEMA administrator Brock Long, second from right, and Lt. Gen. Jeff Buchanan, right as he tours an area affected by Hurricane Maria in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. Trump is visiting Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The report said that the agency provided 1 million nights’ lodging in hotels and 130 million meals after the 2017 storms, which is a level of aid FEMA considers “unprecedented.”

The agency spent nearly $4 billion on aid and recovery efforts related to Puerto Rico.

“The hurricanes also showed that governments need to be better prepared with their own supplies, to have pre-positioned contracts with enforcement mechanisms, and to be ready for the financial implications of a disaster," FEMA Administrator Brock Long wrote in a letter attached to the report.

Puerto Rico continues to struggle to recover from the 2017 storms and to prepare for the 2018 season.

Nearly 10 months after Maria, about 1,000 households on the island are still without power, and the management of the island’s government-owned electric utility is in turmoil.

A Harvard study estimates there were as many as 4,600 deaths associated with Maria. However, FEMA’s report said the fatalities were being reviewed by Puerto Rico’s government.

The Puerto Rican government has not finished its own after-action report, a spokeswoman said.

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