FEMA Deployed Thousands of Underqualified Staffers to Respond to Disasters in 2017

A new report looks at how the government responded to a quick succession of hurricanes and wildfires last year.
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Puerto Rican residents carry water and Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs) received from FEMA about two weeks after Hurricane Maria swept through the island on October 5th, 2017, in San Isidro, Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rican residents carry water and Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs) received from FEMA about two weeks after Hurricane Maria swept through the island on October 5th, 2017, in San Isidro, Puerto Rico.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has spent historic amounts of resources and time in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, a new government watchdog report finds. In response to the hurricane, which hit in September of 2017, the agency sent in food and supplies worth about $1 billion, deployed 4,700 medical personnel, and installed more than 1,700 emergency generators.

But the report—by the Government Accountability Office—doesn't offer any way for readers to assess how well this help lined up with the need there: For example, how many meals did Puerto Ricans need, compared to the number they received? Of all the Americans affected by natural disasters last year, Puerto Ricans were especially hard hit: The entire electric grid stopped functioning, 80 to 85 percent of the water and sewer authority's clients didn't have service, and an estimated 2,975 people died.

Overall, the report paints a picture of the difficulty FEMA faced in responding to a quick succession of natural disasters: Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, which made landfall within four weeks of one another, and then the enormous wildfires in California, which started three weeks later. In addition, FEMA officials told the Government Accountability Office that Puerto Ricans leaned on the federal government more heavily than states typically do in emergencies; Puerto Rican authorities said they ran out of supplies after Hurricane Irma and, before that, had had difficulty maintaining their aging infrastructure and preparing for hurricanes because of the territory's large debt.

Altogether, these disasters affected about one in seven Americans and wreaked hundreds of billions of dollars in damage.

FEMA itself didn't have enough trained staff to cover so many emergencies at once, the Government Accountability Office found. By September of 2017, the agency was understaffed by 30 percent. In October of 2017, 54 percent of FEMA employees deployed weren't considered qualified for the jobs they were sent to do, according to the agency's own internal tracking system. (Some of these staffers may have received additional training on the ground, FEMA officials told the Government Accountability Office.) The office noted it had identified, in 2012, that FEMA had trouble training the people it needed to respond to big disasters. FEMA is working on addressing its shortfall, but doesn't expect to meet all of its goals until 2020, the new report says.

The Government Accountability Office's reckoning with the U.S.'s handling of 2017's disasters comes at a time when many parties are looking to grade the country's emergency response. In August, FEMA released its own assessment, which also talked about being overwhelmed by the timing of 2017's hurricanes and not having enough staff. Then, just last week, President Donald Trump told reporters, "I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico." Democrats in Congress have pushed for an independent analysis of the government's performance in Puerto Rico, but so far, the effort hasn't gone anywhere.

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