Hurricane Maria was the strongest when it made landfall in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. Nearly six months later, more than 65% of residents there are still without power.
Carrie Cochran, USA TODAY Network
WASHINGTON — With FEMA facing its deepest scrutiny in more than a decade, the government watchdog in charge of measuring the agency’s performance is no longer assessing its initial response to disasters.
The decision by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General to no longer issue preliminary reports comes as the watchdog took the extraordinary step last week of pulling a dozen largely positive assessments of the Obama administration’s initial response to several disasters.
Acting DHS Inspector General John V. Kelly said the reports, pulled last week from the IG’s web site, didn’t meet proper standards for a government audit.
“We were not confident that the evidence collected (in those reports) was necessary to support the conclusion,” Kelly said in an interview Thursday. “It doesn’t mean the conclusion was wrong (but) our standard is that it has to be adequately supported. You can’t say something without having the evidence even if it’s true.”
The Federal Emergency Management Administration, or FEMA, is a division of the Department of Homeland Security.
Instead of initial reports, the agency will adopt a model that provides “real-time feedback” to FEMA about its response to disasters based on observations on the ground rather than reviews that come out months after a recovery begins, Arlen Morales, a spokeswoman for the IG’s office wrote in an email.
“This work does not lend itself well to a traditional audit following Government Auditing Standards. Nevertheless, the work is critically important,” she wrote. “By following standards that better suit the work, we can better accomplish the objective of the work— namely, to provide timely feedback to FEMA on issues before they become multi-million dollar problems.”
The change means the watchdog won’t be issuing a public assessment of FEMA’s preliminary efforts to help Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Maria, a devastating, category 4 storm that left much of the island without power and other basic necessities for months.
Nearly 200,000 families and businesses in Puerto Rico — 16% of the U.S. territory — remain without power. The island faces a growing mental health crisis as people wrestle with their losses from the storm. And FEMA is answering tough questions about bungled contracts in its recovery effort.
Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said the federal response to last year’s hurricanes that hit Texas (Harvey) and Florida (Irma) was robust and immediate.
The Trump administration’s response to Maria “was far slower and smaller,” he said during a committee hearing Thursday examining federal efforts to help communities recover from last year’s disasters.
“Even weeks after the storm, there were only a fraction of the federal personnel on the ground (compared to Texas and Florida),” Thompson said. “Food and water were in short supply, and federal contracts to provide essentials like tarps and meals were botched, further slowing the response.”
Not since 2005 when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and killed nearly 2,000 along the Gulf Coast has FEMA been under such a public microscope.
Those defending FEMA’s response to Maria say the agency, already juggling several other major disasters last summer, had to respond to a remote area whose substandard infrastructure and government corruption severely complicated rescue and recovery.
“The bottom line is my agency made a herculean effort to put food and water in every area,” FEMA Administrator Brock Long told the House committee Thursday. “And it’s not going to move as fast when you’re talking about island jurisdiction and airport systems … and ports (that) are completely blown out.”
Morales, the spokeswoman for the IG’s office, said the new approach will work better than traditional audits.
“Our disaster deployment work was always meant to provide FEMA with real-time response,” she said. “We believe our new approach will improve our ability to do that.”
Craig Fugate, who ran FEMA under President Obama from 2009 to 2017, said the new approach could be more beneficial than the after-the-fact “punitive reports” the IG often issues in the wake of a disaster.
“If they’re moving to where (they give FEMA) a chance to address those (problems) as they see them, particularly in the disaster environments, that would be helpful,” he said in an interview last week.
But Claire Rubin, an independent disaster researcher and consultant, said not having initial reports means researchers and first responders won’t be able to thoroughly measure FEMA’s response to specific disasters.
The recovery from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, for example, was enhanced by the lessons learned from Katrina, she said.
“We learn from history,” said Rubin, who runs the Recovery Diva blog. “Those of us who watch recovery know it’s going to be decades for it to unfold. But as a service to the reading public, we need to document what actually happened, what caught them off guard, what they hadn’t seen before, what they didn’t handle well. We don’t want to lose that.”
The 12 reports removed from the IG’s web site included two reports in 2013 on FEMA’s response to Sandy.
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