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FEMA’S FAILURE! Federal Agency Grafted Two-Year-Old Strategy For Smaller Storm Onto Maria Aftermath

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SAN JUAN — The federal government significantly underestimated the potential damage to Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria and relied too heavily on local officials and private-sector entities to handle the cleanup, according to a POLITICO review of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s plan for the disaster.

The plan, which was developed by a FEMA contractor in 2014 in anticipation of a catastrophic storm and utilized by FEMA when Maria hit last September, prepared for a Category 4 hurricane and projected that the island would shift from response to recovery mode after roughly 30 days. In fact, Hurricane Maria was a “high-end” Category 4 storm with different locations on the island experiencing Category 5 winds. More than six month after Maria made landfall, the island is just beginning to shift to recovery mode.

More significantly, according to a half-dozen disaster-recovery experts who reviewed the document at POLITICO’s request, FEMA did not anticipate having to take on a lead role in the aftermath of the disaster, despite clear signs that the island’s government and critical infrastructure would be overwhelmed in the face of such a storm. Instead, the document largely relied on local Puerto Rico entities to restore the island’s power and telecommunications systems. It didn’t mention the financial instability of the Puerto Rican government and Puerto Rican electrical utility, factors that significantly complicated the immediate response to Maria.

“The plan truly didn’t contemplate the event the size of Maria,” said one person involved with FEMA’s response to Maria. “They made assumptions that people would be able to do things that they wouldn’t be able to do.”

Disaster-recovery experts said the 140-page plan, published last month on the open-information site MuckRock through a Freedom of Information Act request, correctly predicted many challenges that FEMA faced with Hurricane Maria, including widespread road closures and difficulties transporting emergency supplies to the island territories, but failed to anticipate the extent of the damage.

The federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria was notably slower than to Hurricane Harvey, which seriously damaged the Houston, Texas, area just a month earlier. The experts said the failure to plan for an even stronger storm striking Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands may have contributed to the perception that the government was taking Puerto Rico’s disaster less seriously.

“It is always easier to judge a response — and the plan developed for that scenario — after the incident is over and all the factors are known,” FEMA communications director William Booher said in a statement. “In much the same way that no two disasters are alike, no plan will perfectly fit the unique risks and requirements actually presented by the real-world scenario. For this reason, emergency managers are trained to adapt the use of one or more plans to inform the operational tasks during the incident.”

Michael Coen, an appointee of President Barack Obama who was chief of staff at FEMA when the report was written, said the drafters should have expected that the federal government would need to play a larger role than they envisioned.

“They probably should have made the assumption that it was going to require federal support,” said Michael Coen, who is now an adviser at IEM, which contracts with FEMA to draft hurricane plans but was not involved in the creation of the Puerto Rico plan. “That should have been flagged.”

The omission is significant because such planning documents are most useful in advance of the disaster, the experts said, to help federal, state and local entities understand their responsibilities.

It’s difficult to compare FEMA’s plan with its actual operations after Hurricane Maria because the plan itself outlined general duties and a rough timeline for the federal response without specifying how many helicopters, federal personnel or emergency supplies would be needed in a certain situation. But the plan did accurately predict that the island’s geographic position and aging infrastructure would make the response challenging. It correctly identified that moving assets to nearby locations in advance would be “limited” as a result of the storm’s uncertain path and that “hotel space commonly used to house responders may be necessary to house survivors.”

The plan also noted that Puerto Rico’s power is generated in the island’s south while most of the population lives in the north, requiring transmission lines that run over mountainous terrain which would make “repair and restoration difficult and lengthy.” Further down, it said, “It is anticipated that infrastructure of essential utilities will be out of service for extended periods of time.”

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The Author

John McCarthy

John McCarthy

John McCarthy has been reporting on the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Caribbean region since 1989. John's articles have appeared in the BVI Beacon, St. Croix Avis, San Juan Star and Virgin Islands Daily News. He is originally from Detroit, Michigan.

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