A report by Frances Robles for the New York Times.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s plans for a crisis in Puerto Rico were based on a focused disaster like a tsunami, not a major hurricane devastating the whole island. The agency vastly underestimated how much food and fresh water it would need, and how hard it would be to get additional supplies to the island.
And when the killer storm did come, FEMA’s warehouse in Puerto Rico was nearly empty, its contents rushed to aid the United States Virgin Islands, which were hammered by another storm two weeks before. There was not a single tarpaulin or cot left in stock.
Those and other shortcomings are detailed in a FEMA report assessing the agency’s response to the 2017 storm season, when three major hurricanes slammed the United States in quick succession, leaving FEMA struggling to deliver food and water quickly to storm victims in Puerto Rico.
The after-action report describes an initially chaotic and disorganized relief effort on the island that was plagued with logistical problems and stretched into the longest feeding mission in the agency’s history.
The report confirms many of the criticisms that have been leveled at the agency, especially in Puerto Rico, which President Trump visited a few weeks after Hurricane Maria and complained that the disaster “threw our budget a little out of whack.” At the time, the island’s hospitals were struggling to function, shortages of diesel fuel were keeping supermarkets closed and generators idle, and the death rate on the island was soaring.
The 2017 hurricane season in the United States was the most destructive on record. According to the report, nearly five million people registered for FEMA assistance last year, exceeding the combined total from four previous major hurricanes — Rita, Wilma, Katrina and Sandy. The 2017 storms caused a total of $265 billion in damage and badly stretched FEMA’s capacity to respond.
The report says FEMA had thousands fewer workers than it needed, and many of those it had were not qualified to handle such major catastrophes. FEMA had to borrow many workers from other agencies to help it manage the immense demand for essentials, from hotel rooms to drinking water, in the aftermath of the storms.
Although FEMA distributed 130 million meals, 35 million of them in Puerto Rico, the report says the agency took longer than expected to secure supplies and lost track of much of the aid it delivered and who needed it.
The report was expected to be made public on Monday, but the agency released it shortly after The New York Times reported on a draft obtained in advance. Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary, said in a statement that the report “provides a transformative roadmap for how we respond to future catastrophic incidents.”
There were minor differences in the two versions. For example, the final version no longer contains a paragraph noting that FEMA’s hurricane plans had so underestimated disaster impacts that the agency used a five-year-old earthquake and tsunami plan.
The report underscores how ill-prepared the agency was to manage a crisis outside the continental United States, like the one in Puerto Rico. And it urges communities in harm’s way not to count so heavily on FEMA in a future crisis.
“The 2017 hurricane season showed that all levels of government — and individual families — need to be much better prepared with their own supplies, particularly in remote or insular areas where commodities take longer to deliver,” the agency administrator, Brock Long, wrote in the draft report. “In Puerto Rico, little of the communications infrastructure survived Hurricane Maria, and as a result, it was extremely difficult for the local, territory, or federal agencies to know what was needed and where in the immediate aftermath of the storm.”
Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 as a Category 4 storm, knocking out all of the island’s electric power and most of its cellphone towers. At that time, thousands of FEMA workers were already deployed in Florida and Texas, where Hurricane Irma had left six million people without power and Hurricane Harvey had forced 780,000 from their homes.
Irma had skirted Puerto Rico on its way to Florida two weeks earlier, but it had devastated the United States Virgin Islands. To aid those islands, FEMA had depleted its Puerto Rico warehouse, the report says. And even before Irma, the warehouse held only 250,000 meals, a small fraction of what would ultimately be needed.
Further, the report says, FEMA failed to take account of the logistical problems that its own disaster planning drills had shown it could face when coping with a disaster in Puerto Rico.
It took several days for the first barge carrying food and water to reach the island after the storm, and when the aid arrived, so many of the island’s truck drivers were grappling with their own storm damage that hardly any were available to move the FEMA aid out of the island’s seaports, the report says.
“We got food and supplies to the people of Puerto Rico before FEMA did — I know that for a fact,” said Representative Luis V. Gutiérrez, Democrat of Illinois, who made several trips to the island after the storm and plans to retire there in January. He said FEMA had been “ill-prepared, incompetent and leaderless.”
When Mr. Trump visited the island after the storm, he drew criticism for seeming to take the island’s troubles less than seriously, at one point tossing rolls of paper towels into a crowd gathered in an upper middle-class neighborhood.
Mr. Gutiérrez said Mr. Trump’s early comments in Puerto Rico about the cost, and his complaint on Twitter that Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them,” set a tone that led to a middling response by his administration.
Mr. Trump was firing back at the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, who had called the logistics failures in the federal response to the crisis “something close to a genocide.”
Ms. Cruz said on Thursday that FEMA’s biggest problems were inside-the-box thinking and working under an administration that wanted to trumpet a success story.
“They thought that anything that has happened before will work in Puerto Rico,” she said of FEMA in a telephone interview, adding that the island suffered “a humanitarian crisis that was made even worse by a government that was more preoccupied with the political discourse than with helping people.”
Although the official death toll in Puerto Rico for Hurricane Maria is 64, death records show that more than 1,000 additional people died on the island in the weeks after the storm, compared with the same period in earlier years.
A week after Maria made landfall, FEMA still did not know whether half the island’s hospitals were open, the report says. Officials sent out on reconnaissance missions by helicopter could not share the information they collected because communications had collapsed. The satellite phones that FEMA had sent to the island were not meant to work in the Caribbean.
Craig Fugate, who led FEMA during the Obama administration, said that when he visited the agency’s Puerto Rico warehouse during his tenure, he was surprised at the small quantity of supplies on hand.
“‘There are empty shelves here,’” Mr. Fugate said he remembered thinking. “We leased the building and were only using some of it. ‘Why are we not stocking more stuff?’ They said: ‘This is based on what we have historically used here.’”
Michael D. Brown, who was the FEMA administrator in 2005 when the agency’s response to Hurricane Katrina was widely criticized, said Congress had historically been unwilling to pay to stock warehouses for the possibility of extreme events, particularly with supplies that have a limited shelf life and could wind up going to waste. But as the report notes, extreme events are becoming more frequent.
“Every Congress, every president, remembers Katrina, so now they do everything to over-respond, so they can’t be criticized for any sort of lack of response,” Mr. Brown said.
The FEMA report says that the agency did not have nearly enough generators to meet Puerto Rico’s urgent needs after Maria, leaving several midlevel medical clinics without emergency power. Puerto Rico requested 1,400 generators; FEMA had about half that many in stock.
FEMA did provide huge generators to power water-pumping stations on the island, and has been spending $20 million a month on generators for two electric power plants.
In all, the report says, the agency has provided one million nights’ lodging in hotels and 130 million meals after the 2017 storms, a level of aid it considers “unprecedented.” The agency spent nearly $4 billion on aid and recovery efforts related to Puerto Rico.
But many in Puerto Rico fault the agency’s efforts.
“I don’t think anything provided by FEMA was a ‘meal,’” said Carlos J. Torres, 46, a resident of Guayanilla in the southern part of the island, referring to the military rations and boxes of candies and snacks that the agency often distributed. “You cannot call that food,” he said.
Mr. Torres said he received a $500 emergency grant from FEMA, but has not been able to return to his apartment because the building was badly damaged and the landlord, his father, did not qualify for disaster assistance.
His father was referred to the Small Business Administration to take out a low-interest loan for repairs, but “what I am expecting to see is a lot of people losing their property,” Mr. Torres said. “They are not going to be able to pay that off.”
Thousands of Puerto Ricans left homeless by the storm took refuge on the mainland with FEMA’s help, but have still not been able to return home.
Bethzaida Crespo, 36, moved her family to a hotel room in Orlando when her home in Dorado flooded. She received $3,000 for her losses and FEMA has paid for the hotel room. But that assistance is set to run out on July 23, and like many evacuees, she is looking to the agency for help finding a longer-term solution.
“We’re about to end up on the street,” Ms. Crespo said. “Nobody is happy with what is going on here. At the end of the day, there’s no winning. We are always losing.”
The office of the governor of Puerto Rico referred questions about the report and FEMA’s response to the island’s public safety secretary, Héctor Pesquera. Mr. Pesquera’s office said he had not yet seen the report and could not comment on it.
Puerto Rico has continued to struggle both to recover from the 2017 storms and prepare for the 2018 season. Nearly 10 months after Hurricane Maria, about 1,000 households on the island are still without power, and the management of the island’s government-owned electric utility, Prepa, is in turmoil. Its chief executive resigned on Wednesday after just four months in the post; by Thursday, his replacement, along with six members of the board, had also quit.
The Puerto Rican government has still not finished its own after-action report, a spokeswoman said.