Amid Federal Finger-Pointing, FEMA Takes Stock of Puerto Rico Effort

In this Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017 photo, a brigade from the Electric Power Authority repairs distribution lines damaged by Hurricane Maria in the Cantera community of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Carlos Giusti/AP

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In this Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017 photo, a brigade from the Electric Power Authority repairs distribution lines damaged by Hurricane Maria in the Cantera community of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The director acknowledged an imperfect response and says he wants to create a cadre of FEMA reservists.

Federal officials on Tuesday consistently pointed the blame at the Puerto Rican government for failing to respond more quickly and comprehensively to the hurricane-driven disaster on the island, though it did acknowledge its own relief efforts have been imperfect.

Lawmakers from both parties and agency leaders praised employees at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Defense Department and Health and Human Services Department at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing. Trump administration officials repeatedly cited the tireless efforts made by their workforces and the lives they have been instrumental in saving. FEMA Administrator Brock Long noted his staff has rescued 9,000 victims trapped by recent hurricanes and wildfires and sheltered more than 1.1 million individuals, while HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Robert Kadlec noted his employees have treated 22,000 patients impacted by those disasters.

Long declined to give the administration a grade on its response to the situation in Puerto Rico, saying it would receive disproportionate new coverage. President Trump said recently he would give the federal response “a 10.” Asked after the hearing if such comments are detrimental to his agency’s efforts, Long demurred.

“The president is entitled to his views,” the FEMA administrator said.

He acknowledged FEMA still has a lot of work to do in Puerto Rico.

“Could we have done better? Did we pick everyone up? Obviously in some cases, no,” Long said. “For me to say things have gone perfectly, I know they didn’t.” He added that FEMA pushed as hard and deployed as quickly as possible.

Long said the response in Puerto Rico was among the largest humanitarian aid missions in FEMA’s history, noting the commodities it has distributed. The agency is currently spending $200 million per day in response to hurricanes Maria, Harvey, Irene and the California wildfires.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., the committee’s chairman, spoke repeatedly, however, of the need for state and local entities to take a larger role in disaster response efforts. Long noted states such as Texas, Florida and California took the lead and FEMA offered support where needed. In Puerto Rico, however, he said its government did not have that capacity.

FEMA became the primary first responder on the island after Maria struck, Long said, “which is never a good situation.” He added: “We’re never going to move as fast,” as local governments. He also cited poor communications that led to Puerto Ricans not going to the right locations to receive food and water disbursements.

The FEMA administrator noted the average Puerto Rican power plant is 40 years old, while worldwide that average is 18 years. Maj. Gen. Donald Jackson, the Army Corps of Engineers’ deputy commanding general for emergency operations, said Puerto Rican authorities did not possess a complete awareness of their own power lines, requiring his personnel to go out and count them across the island. Had Puerto Rico activated mutual aid agreements with other public utilities throughout the United States, as is typical during disaster responses that knocks out power, Jackson said the Corps would have stuck to its normal mission of providing generators and other quick fixes. Instead, it has been assigned by FEMA to restore the entire power grid on the island and has $577 million to do so. There are currently 450 Corps personnel deployed in Puerto Rico, which Jackson said will grow to 1,000 by November.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority has faulted the Corps for not responding more quickly and deploying more resources to restore power on the island, saying it recently solicited help from public utilities in New York and Florida due to the agency’s “delays.” The Puerto Rican government and Trump administration agreed on targets to have PREPA operating at 30 percent capacity by the end of October and 50 percent by the end of November. They have met the first goal.

Jackson said the recent termination of a contract between PREPA and the small, Montana-based firm Whitefish Electric for power grid restoration would not impede Corps efforts. Long reiterated that FEMA had nothing to do with procuring that contract and is currently ensuring it does not pay any associated reimbursement costs.

Long also made a series of recommendations to improve the federal disaster response process, including how FEMA handles its own personnel. The administrator said he wants his agency to establish a reserve cadre that operates similarly to the National Guard and ensures employees activated during an emergency are protected in their normal day jobs.

“I’m frustrated by our hiring process,” Long said. “I would like to rewrite the book on how we do that.”

He also suggested the government rethink the way it doles out emergency grants from the Disaster Relief Fund. Rather than only doling out spending for mitigation efforts after a major storm hits, he said, FEMA should give that money out in advance to help prevent disasters before they happen or mitigate the damage once they do.

“I think it makes perfect sense and I think we can all agree that’s what needs to be done,” Long said.

Long’s other suggestions included streamlining the disaster recovery programs offered across the federal government, working with local governments to improve their preparedness levels to ensure FEMA “doesn’t have to shoulder the entire burden,” boosting the rates of those with insurance and reforming the National Flood Insurance Program. He also asked for congressional authority to rebuild the Puerto Rican power grid to be more resilient to future storms. Currently, he said, he can only deal with immediate concerns without regard for long-term solutions.

“My authority is to get power back up and running and to prevent further loss of life,” Long said.

Jackson confirmed that if a similar storm strikes Puerto Rico after the Corps completes its power restoration efforts, the island would face the same problems again.

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