Personnel shortfalls and logistical problems hampered efforts by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to respond sufficiently to Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico in September 2017.
Maria was the third hurricane to hit the U.S. and its territories in 2017. It struck at a time when the federal emergency agency was already supporting 692 federally declared disasters.
An After-Action Report published by FEMA was released July 12 and identifies 18 key findings across five focus areas and offers recommendations for improvements. (Read the report.)
The agency said its response efforts in Puerto Rico were hampered by the near-total destruction of the island's electric infrastructure, as well as the loss of 95 percent of cell towers. "We must ensure survivable communications capability to enable coordination between government leadership and to maintain connection with the critical infrastructure sector," said FEMA Administrator Brock Long in a statement accompanying the report.
The report also finds fault with the process displaced people use to apply for FEMA housing assistance. "FEMA needs to simplify the process of applying for assistance to make our programs easier to navigate," Long said.
The agency report says that a combination of inadequate staffing and business process shortfalls led to "challenges in comprehensively tracking resources moving across multiple modes of transportation to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands."
The logistical challenges in responding to a disaster on an island far from the mainland were top of mind within days of Maria's landfall. Damage on Puerto Rico was widespread and covered an area the size of Connecticut. Complicating matters, San Juan lies more than 1,000 sea miles from Miami.
“I can’t tell my guys to put trucks on I-95 and drive south” as utility crews did in response to Hurricane Irma after it hit Florida, Mike Hyland, senior vice president of engineering services for the American Public Power Association told Engineering360 and the IEEE Energywise blog at the time. Some 28,000 workers from 30 states and Canada had the power back on in Florida within 10 days of Irma making landfall.
Logistics were more complex on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Not only did trucks, equipment and personnel need to be moved by barge and airplane to the islands, but arrangements needed to be made for fuel, food, water, security and housing.
FEMA says it has already taken actions based on the findings from the report including updated hurricane plans, annexes, and procedures for states and territories; increased planning factors for the Caribbean and disaster supplies; and updated high priority national-level contracts, including the National Evacuation Contract, Caribbean Transportation Contract and National Ambulance Contract.
FEMA says that hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria caused a combined $265 billion in damage and each ranked among the top five costliest hurricanes on record. FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces, composed of state and local emergency responders, saved or assisted nearly 9,500 people across the three hurricanes. In total, the hurricanes and wildfires affected more than 47 million people, almost 15 percent of the nation’s population.
"The response to the hurricanes demonstrated the need for emergency managers at all levels to improve collaboration with the critical infrastructure sectors," Long said.