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Hurricanes and wildfires overwhelmed FEMA in 2017, according to new GAO report

Fires in California and hurricanes in Texas and Puerto Rico caused massive damage in 2017. This is what it looked like from the air. (Video: Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was stretched thin and overwhelmed in 2017 by the sequence of major hurricanes and wildfires that caused disasters across the country, according to a massive Government Accountability Office “performance audit” released Tuesday.

The GAO report concludes that FEMA generally carried out its duties as expected when responding within the continental United States — to hurricanes Harvey and Irma and the California wildfires — but it found that FEMA was not ready for what Hurricane Maria did to Puerto Rico.

“They were completely overwhelmed from a workforce standpoint,” Chris Currie, the GAO director for emergency management issues and leader of the audit, said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “Once Maria hit, their staff resources were pretty exhausted. Their other commodities and resources were exhausted.”

Some of the FEMA staff deployed to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands “were not physically able to handle the extreme or austere environment of the territories, which detracted from mission needs,” according to the report. FEMA officials told the auditors that “the physical fitness of staff could be assessed” before future deployments.

At one point last October — as FEMA struggled to respond to multiple disasters — 54 percent of FEMA’s deployed workers were forced to perform tasks for which they did not meet the agency’s standard of “qualified,” the report states. And many staffers couldn’t speak Spanish, something that hindered efforts in Puerto Rico: “FEMA did not have enough bilingual employees to communicate with local residents or translate documents.”

Study: Hurricane Maria and its aftermath caused a spike in Puerto Rico deaths

FEMA had problems locating people on the islands “because many affected areas did not have posted addresses, many individuals use nicknames instead of their given names, and often several families were located on a single property,” the report states.

Officials in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands had prepared for a natural disaster before the arrival of Hurricane Maria, but “neither had recently experienced nor stockpiled the resources necessary for a hurricane of that magnitude,” the report states.

The report, titled “2017 Hurricanes and Wildfires: Initial Observations on the Federal Response and Key Recovery Challenges,” makes no specific recommendations but says GAO is conducting a comprehensive review of how the federal government plans for and responds to disasters.

Failure of imagination hindered federal Puerto Rico response amid rough hurricane season

FEMA’s in-house report, released in July, acknowledged that the agency had not anticipated that two storms might hit Puerto Rico in rapid succession or that the destruction would be as broad and intense as what Maria delivered last September.

The earlier FEMA report noted that in mid-September, before Maria arrived, officials on Puerto Rico shipped the bulk of the island’s emergency supplies to the U.S. Virgin Islands, which had been hit hard by Hurricane Irma. When Maria roared in, Puerto Rico was low on food, water, tarps, cots and other supplies.

FEMA officials have repeatedly said that the agency is not supposed to be the first responder after a disaster, instead emphasizing that localities and states should have that responsibility. But Hurricane Maria blew up that protocol, the new GAO report suggests: “FEMA essentially served as the first responder in the early response efforts in Puerto Rico.”

The report notes that the remoteness of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands “complicated” the FEMA response, as did the “outdated local infrastructure.”

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Currie highlighted the infrastructure challenges.

“In Puerto Rico, you had the absolute destruction of the system,” he said. “It wasn’t just about stringing line and putting up power poles but the complete restoration of the system.”

The island territory faced major logistical challenges in delivering materials and parts that had to be manufactured elsewhere and shipped to Puerto Rico. Normally, Currie said, a state would receive assistance through mutual aid agreements with neighboring states, but that capacity was limited in Puerto Rico. GAO plans to take a closer look at power restoration and evaluate the work of the Army Corps of Engineers in a future report.

Currie said FEMA wasn’t prepared for Maria: “I think FEMA didn’t do as good a job as they could’ve done to anticipate” such a devastating hurricane.

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria had similar wind speeds when they struck the United States — each was a Category 4 storm at landfall — but beyond that they had unique features and presented distinct challenges.

Harvey stalled as soon as it reached the Texas coast, inundating Southeast Texas with 50 inches of rain in less than a week. Houston and other coastal cities flooded catastrophically, and tens of thousands of people were driven from their homes.

Irma’s path was unusual — straight up the Florida peninsula. Evacuations shut down the state for the better part of a week. Millions of people lost electrical power.

Maria was the deadliest by far. It slammed Puerto Rico on its southeast coast and rolled across the island, knocking out 100 percent of the electrical grid and 95 percent of cellphone towers, triggering a collapse in emergency communications. Although officials initially attributed 64 deaths to the storm, the humanitarian crisis on the island led to many more deaths, and last week the government embraced as its official death toll the new estimate from researchers at George Washington University, which showed 2,975 excess deaths in Puerto Rico in the six months after Maria’s landfall.