Disaster Preparedness • Economic Recovery • Resilience

GAO Report Reviews 2017 Government Recovery Effort: Overall Praise for Follow-up after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma; but Criticism for Maria Response

A recent GAO report praised the U.S government’s recovery efforts after hurricanes and wildfires in 2017 in Texas, Florida, and California – while criticizing the response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Titled 2017 Hurricanes and Wildfires: Initial Observations on the Federal Response and Key Recovery Challenges, the 133-page study was released on September 4.

“Federal and state preparedness and coordination efforts prior to and after the 2017 hurricane and wildfire disasters facilitated the response [to Hurricane Harvey] in Texas, [to Hurricane Irma} Florida, and [the wildfire events in] California,” the report found. In particular, the report praised the pre-deployment of federal personnel,” the “collocating federal, state, and local emergency managers,” and the “prestaging and delivery of commodities like food and water.”

The GAO offered criticism, however, of the government’s response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. It noted that the U.S. government “faced numerous challenges that complicated response efforts,” with “FEMA efforts in Puerto Rico alone [being] the largest and longest single response in the agency’s history.”  Most pointedly, it faulted the preparedness of federal emergency personnel, noting that even in October, more than a month after the disaster, 54 percent were unqualified. It also said that state and local government in Puerto Rico were inadequate to the task, forcing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to take over many of the tasks traditional handled at the local level.

“We found that numerous challenges—such as complex logistics for supplies due to distances from the mainland, and the need to provide a number of services due to widespread devastation and loss of power—slowed FEMA’s work.

Communications problems were especially severe, with only 5% of cellphone towers operational, leaving the island with virtually no communication for almost a week. Officials also said that federal, state and local official struggled to find temporary housing for those affected by the hurricane.

GAO underscored the unprecedented level of response to last year’s disasters. At the height of the disaster response, over 14,000 federal workers were deployed, with Maria, Harvey, and Irma each accounting for about 4,000 workers.