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FEMA’s plan underestimated Puerto Rican hurricane

The federal government significantly underestimated the potential damage to Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria and relied too heavily on local officials and private-sector entities to handle the cleanup, according to a POLITICO review of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s plan for the disaster.

The plan, which was developed by a FEMA contractor in 2014 in anticipation of a catastrophic storm and utilized by FEMA when Maria hit last September, prepared for a Category 4 hurricane and projected that the island would shift from response to recovery mode after roughly 30 days. In fact, Hurricane Maria was a “high-end” Category 4 storm with different locations on the island experiencing Category 5 winds. More than six months after Maria made landfall, the island is just beginning to shift to recovery mode.

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More significantly, according to a half-dozen disaster-recovery experts who reviewed the document at POLITICO’s request, FEMA did not anticipate having to take on a lead role in the aftermath of the disaster, despite clear signs that the island’s government and critical infrastructure would be overwhelmed in the face of such a storm. Instead, the document largely relied on local Puerto Rico entities to restore the island’s power and telecommunications systems. It didn’t mention the financial instability of the Puerto Rican government and Puerto Rican electrical utility, factors that significantly complicated the immediate response to Maria.

Donald Trump is pictured. | Getty

“The plan truly didn’t contemplate the event the size of Maria,” said one person involved with FEMA’s response to Maria. “They made assumptions that people would be able to do things that they wouldn’t be able to do.”

Disaster-recovery experts said the 140-page plan, published last month on the open-information site MuckRock through a Freedom of Information Act request, correctly predicted many challenges that FEMA faced with Hurricane Maria, including widespread road closures and difficulties transporting emergency supplies to the island territories, but failed to anticipate the extent of the damage.

The federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria was notably slower than to Hurricane Harvey, which seriously damaged the Houston, Texas, area just a month earlier. The experts said the failure to plan for an even stronger storm striking Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands may have contributed to the perception that the government was taking Puerto Rico’s disaster less seriously.

“It is always easier to judge a response — and the plan developed for that scenario — after the incident is over and all the factors are known,” FEMA communications director William Booher said in a statement. “In much the same way that no two disasters are alike, no plan will perfectly fit the unique risks and requirements actually presented by the real-world scenario. For this reason, emergency managers are trained to adapt the use of one or more plans to inform the operational tasks during the incident.”

Michael Coen, an appointee of President Barack Obama who was chief of staff at FEMA when the report was written, said the drafters should have expected that the federal government would need to play a larger role than they envisioned.

“They probably should have made the assumption that it was going to require federal support,” said Michael Coen, who is now an adviser at IEM, which contracts with FEMA to draft hurricane plans but was not involved in the creation of the Puerto Rico plan. “That should have been flagged.”

The omission is significant because such planning documents are most useful in advance of the disaster, the experts said, to help federal, state and local entities understand their responsibilities.

It’s difficult to compare FEMA’s plan with its actual operations after Hurricane Maria because the plan itself outlined general duties and a rough timeline for the federal response without specifying how many helicopters, federal personnel or emergency supplies would be needed in a certain situation. But the plan did accurately predict that the island’s geographic position and aging infrastructure would make the response challenging. It correctly identified that moving assets to nearby locations in advance would be “limited” as a result of the storm’s uncertain path and that “hotel space commonly used to house responders may be necessary to house survivors.”

The plan also noted that Puerto Rico’s power is generated in the island’s south while most of the population lives in the north, requiring transmission lines that run over mountainous terrain which would make “repair and restoration difficult and lengthy.” Further down, it said, “It is anticipated that infrastructure of essential utilities will be out of service for extended periods of time.”

On a broad level, Jeremy Konyndyk, the former top disaster response official at USAID during the Obama administration, said the plan was “reasonably good” and provided FEMA with a good starting point for a response. “It presciently anticipates many of the issues that emerged in the Maria response,” he said.

But Konyndyk and other disaster response experts suggested that the plan contained some critical omissions. Notably, it relied heavily on state and local officials to respond to the storm. The plan said that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could help with temporary power restoration but “cannot fix transmission lines” since such a job “is the responsibility of the owners.” Yet, after Hurricane Maria, the Army Corps was tasked with repairing the entire power grid in Puerto Rico, a result of financial and management difficulties at Puerto Rico’s electrical utility.

The plan anticipated that temporary repairs to critical infrastructure, such as the power system, would be complete soon after the storm. Yet, more than six months after the storm, more than 50,000 people on Puerto Rico remain without power.

The plan also expected private sector companies to quickly restore telecommunications on the island. “There are minimal expectations that federal assistance would be required to restore the infrastructure during the response and recovery of a storm,” it said. If communication systems were not fixed quickly, the document said, first responders could use satellite phones instead or rely on mobile communication trucks delivered to the island.

But during Maria, Puerto Rico’s communication system was wiped out, leaving telecommunications companies scrambling to slowly repair the infrastructure as state and local officials struggled to communicate with FEMA and other first responders. Local officials described limited communications as one of the biggest challenges in the first week after the storm.

“In Puerto Rico, if it rains or they get a light tropical wave, 30 or 40 mph winds, they lose power, they lose telecommunications. With those kinds of events, the private sector restores,” said Coen, the former FEMA chief of staff. “That’s what they do. For this plan, for catastrophic events, the federal interagency needs to have a plan.”

In a March interview at FEMA’s joint field office in Puerto Rico, Michael Byrne, FEMA’s top official overseeing the response to Hurricane Maria, downplayed the importance of the plan.

“A plan is good when you don’t have all the ground truth about what your requirements are going to be. You use that someone thought about this, someone took the time to think it through and said it’s likely that this is what’s going to happen. And then you execute the plan,” said Byrne, who was deployed to the island three weeks after Maria made landfall. “By the time I got here, the plan was overcome by events. What Eisenhower said about plans: No plan, no matter how good, survives contact with the enemy. OK, that plan hit contact with Maria and by the time I got here … I didn’t have to worry about looking at a plan. I could look at reality and decide what to do.”

He added, “Do you know when the best time to write a plan is? Right after the bad thing happened. I think you will have one kick-ass plan coming out of it.”

In the aftermath of the storm, FEMA is revising its hurricane plan for Puerto Rico and creating teams to help Puerto Rico municipalities update their own plans, using new assumptions about the risks and damage from a catastrophic storm.

President Donald Trump throws supplies to a crowd in Puerto Rico. | POLITICO Illustration/Getty Images

Booher, the FEMA spokesman, said the agency is committed to supporting Puerto Rico during its recovery. “FEMA’s ability to provide support in disasters builds on, and is subject to, the capacity of the state, territorial, tribal and local governments,” he added. “There were real challenges in Puerto Rico that had to be overcome — including aging infrastructure, a decayed power grid and liquidity issues.”

Disaster recovery experts said they weren’t surprised that FEMA wasn’t prepared to take a lead role in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The agency traditionally acts in support of state and local authorities, providing resources and expertise but not directing the response. But Puerto Rico’s fragile infrastructure and financial instability severely weakened its capacity to respond to a catastrophic storm and necessitated greater federal support. That support, though, was slow to arrive, according to a recent POLITICO investigation, raising questions about whether FEMA’s reliance on state and local entities in its hurricane plan contributed to delays in sending supplies and assets to the island.

Disaster experts also suggested that the plan’s authors may have been reluctant to suggest that the state and local authorities would be overwhelmed by the storm, worried about straining important relationships.

“This might have been something that the drafters didn’t want to put in writing,” said Coen, who said he didn’t remember whether he reviewed the plan when he was chief of staff.

To many in the disaster community, the problems with FEMA’s plan were representative of broader disaster management challenges across the entire agency. FEMA, individual communities and the country prepare for disasters that fit within their current capabilities, they said, but don’t plan for disasters that could cause even more damage, requiring greater planning or resources in such a dire scenario.

“If you go back and look at almost any federal disaster plan, it suffers from planning to your current capabilities versus planning to what actually could happen,” said a former FEMA official, adding “I wouldn’t say this is a special case, but it is a problem endemic to the federal government.”

In congressional testimony in early April, FEMA Administrator Brock Long suggested that his agency and the country more broadly aren’t prepared for major disasters. “We can’t just continue to plan, train and exercise for what’s easy,” he said. “We need to prepare for catastrophic events that stress our logistics, supply chain, continuity of operations, communications and staffing capacities.”

The former FEMA official agreed, arguing that the problems with the agency’s hurricane plan are representative of problems with emergency planning across the federal government, from other FEMA disaster plans to the lack of permanent funding to respond to disease outbreaks like Ebola. In each case, the former official said, the government prepares to its level of capabilities, not to the potential threat, and fails to consider when an entirely different response framework is necessary.

“The tendency is to try to keep pedaling the same bicycle faster and faster, when the real answer is you can’t use a bike anymore,” the former official said. “You need a motorcycle or a car.”

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