FEMA report: Agency could have better anticipated hurricane season’s challenges
SAN JUAN – The Federal Emergency Management Agency has published its 2017 Hurricane Season After-Action Report, which includes among the key findings of the agency’s performance during the “record breaking” season that it could have “better leveraged open-source information and preparedness data, such as capability assessments and exercise findings, for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.”
The agency said that the “scale, scope, and impacts” of the of last year’s hurricanes: Harvey, Irma and Maria tested its capabilities, even after having developed them after hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.
“FEMA leadership acknowledged that the Agency could have better anticipated that the severity of hurricanes Irma and Maria would cause long-term, significant damage to the territories’ infrastructure,” the report reads. “Leadership also recognized that emergency managers at all levels could have better leveraged existing information to proactively plan for and address such challenges, both before and immediately after the hurricanes.”
FEMA was dealing with 692 federally declared disasters, including massive wildfires in California while it responded to last year’s “catastrophic” hurricanes. It says the lessons learned will help “chart the path” for future disasters.
The report identified 18 key findings across five focus areas and offered targeted recommendations for FEMA improvements, as well as broader lessons for partners throughout the emergency management community.
For example, a stockpile of “commodities” that FEMA kept in the Caribbean Distribution Center warehouse in Puerto Rico “to facilitate a quick response to incidents in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands,” was nearly emptied to replenish the USVI immediately after Irma struck, leaving “an immediate deficit of commodities” in Puerto Rico and “requiring additional items to be transported in the days immediately prior to and following Hurricane Maria’s landfall.”
The agency said it has “already taken immediate actions based on the findings,” 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.”
Harvey, Irma and Maria caused a “combined $265 billion in damage and each ranked among the top five costliest hurricanes on record,” according to FEMA, which at one point deployed 11,775 federal personnel at a time. The combined total employed for the season’s response reached 17,000 staff, who “saved or assisted nearly 9,500” people.
Despite these numbers, the report finds that FEMA “entered the hurricane season with a force strength less than its target, resulting in staffing shortages across the incidents. In acknowledging this, the report’s authors stress how important local communities were to disaster response, and wrote as an example that, after Maria struck Puerto Rico, “’health brigades” of local volunteers knocked on doors to identify and assist those who could not leave. We must continue to support these types of life-saving activities by private citizens.”
FEMA said it “facilitated” missions that involved “more than $2 billion worth of commodities moving across several states and territories,” where “more than 47 million people—almost 15 percent of the nation’s population” was affected. FEMA registered “nearly 4.8 million households” for assistance.
The plans in place for Puerto Rico and USVI “assumed that at least one incident support base—a commodity distribution staging area… would survive the impact of a major hurricane and that all commodities destined for one impacted territory would flow through the other,” but Irma and Maria affected both bases, “forcing FEMA to find alternative ways to manage commodities during initial response operations,” the report says.
It also found that agency plans did not sufficiently consider that “government officials would be unable to meet their responsibilities to manage operational or resource requirements due to a lack of communications or other capability shortfalls.”
Besides not having previously identified potential lodging for personnel, and having to resort to “berthing ships to account for the lack of hotels and space” for shelters, “requirements for fuel and for transferring fuel from storage to fuel trucks necessitated the formulation of fuel truck routing, prioritizations, and sourcing additional vehicles and drivers,” became an issue, with private sector “partners” having to assist “in planning for an unprecedented movement of personnel and material.”
Although FEMA Administrator Brock Long wrote that no jurisdiction or agency is capable of fully addressing a “catastrophic incident, he is “extremely proud of how FEMA and the whole community performed under extraordinary circumstances.”
“We are prepared for the 2018 hurricane season and have already applied lessons learned from last year to improve how we as an emergency management community do business,” Long added.
FEMA has incorporated many of the findings from the report into its 2018-2022 Strategic Plan.
Read the full After-Action Report here: 2017FEMAHurricaneAAR