FEMA Was Overwhelmed by Hurricanes and Wildfires in 2017, GAO Says

Erin Ailworth | Wall Street Journal | September 4, 2018

Jumping from storm to storm, agency was forced to use uncertified workers in key roles, report says

The back-to-back devastation of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, followed by catastrophic wildfires in California, overwhelmed federal disaster responders in 2017, according to a government report released Tuesday. The unprecedented sequence of storms and fires forced Federal Emergency Management Agency staff to jump from one disaster to another and in some cases use uncertified workers to fill key roles. “They were 30% understaffed when Harvey hit,” said Chris Currie, director of emergency management issues at the Government Accountability Office, which wrote Tuesday’s report. “By the time Maria hit Puerto Rico, they were down to the bottom of the barrel.”

Workers were most challenged in Puerto Rico. The U.S. territory’s stock of emergency supplies had already been depleted in responding to Irma there and in the U.S. Virgin Islands, when Maria hit, taking out cellphone towers and destroying the power grid. Compounding those difficulties was the island’s lack of experience with storms as strong as Maria, the strongest hurricane to make landfall on Puerto Rico since a Category 5 recorded in 1928, the GAO report said. The island’s distance from the U.S. mainland also didn’t help.

That created logistical issues for already-exhausted aid workers, who struggled to get necessary supplies where they needed to go. As of April, FEMA had marked $12 billion in disaster aid related to Maria. The report, a FEMA representative said, “captures the complexity of the disasters” while also noting “concerns about workforce, housing programs, and logistical complications in the support of, and response to, the island territories.” In a letter appended to the GAO report, the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged the challenges of responding to so many disasters in quick succession...