A resident just manages to drive under downed utility poles and wires in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, USVI, on Sept. 15, 2017, after Hurricane Irma struck. (FEMA/K.C. Wilsey)

FEMA Report: ‘Significant Challenges’ in 2017 Hurricanes Yield ‘Transformative Roadmap’

The Federal Emergency Management Agency found in its 2017 hurricane season after-action report that “leaders at all levels made major adaptations” to respond to “significant operational challenges” in the face of successive strong storms, but the agency “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.”

Between April and November last year there were 17 named storms; 10 became hurricanes. The report largely focused on the trio that hit the U.S. one after the other: Harvey, which made landfall Aug. 25 in Texas; Irma, which, becoming one of the strongest Atlantic storms on record Sept. 6, skirted the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico; and Maria, which slammed Puerto Rico as a devastating Category 4 hurricane on Sept. 20, leaving 3.7 million people without power.

Together, these three storms inflicted an estimated $265 billion in damage. Comparatively, hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma together caused $209.7 billion damage in 2005.

FEMA resources were also deployed last year for hurricanes Jose and Nate, while wildfires were concurrently tearing through California.

“By capturing the insights gained from the previous hurricane season, this report, which is focused only on the efforts of DHS and FEMA, provides a transformative roadmap for how we respond to future catastrophic incidents in support of states, tribes, and territories. No two disasters are alike and each requires the first responders on the ground, as well as federal support, to adapt to the unique circumstances and needs in real time,” DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement upon release of the report Thursday.

“With every response or recovery effort, we take with us lessons learned that help build a nationwide culture of preparedness and shape the way FEMA and the emergency management community respond to and recover from future disasters,” she added. “2017 taught us that we need to further strengthen the nation’s ability to rapidly stabilize critical lifelines. It also underscored the importance of enhancing logistics capabilities across the emergency management community.”

The report states that FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces saved or assisted in the rescue of 9,500 people during the three main hurricanes. The report cites the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s direct and indirect death tolls for Harvey and Irma: 103 and 96 fatalities, respectively.

“The fatality count from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was being reviewed by the government of Puerto Rico at the time of this report,” the document states in the introduction. A Harvard study estimated at the end of May that, with an official death toll of 64, fatalities attributable to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico are likely “more than 70 times the official estimate.”

The general review of FEMA’s response found “enhancements to the planning process and format are needed to improve usability during operations,” that there were agency staffing shortages going into hurricane season, that “field leaders reported some resultant inefficiency in program delivery,” and that the agency “strategically consolidated ongoing disaster operations facilities” for increased capacity and “augmented its disaster workforce through a combination of initiatives it has used before, as well as innovative and newly expanded methods—these initiatives met their stated intent, but can be matured.”

While noting the agency’s more active role in coordinating efforts in America’s island territories — and noting that some of this work should be the job of localities — the report acknowledged “challenges in comprehensively tracking resources moving across multiple modes of transportation to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands due to staffing shortages and business process shortfalls.” Contracting personnel were also strained by a three-month flood of bids to meet recovery needs.

The agency “executed creative solutions” to work around communications barriers in hard-hit areas, and along with federal partners “installed a record number of generators to provide temporary power to critical infrastructure while facing significant challenges in identifying generator requirements and shortfalls in available generators.”

Recommendations in the report include working with states and communities on risk management, increasing FEMA workforce certifications, using the Urban Search and Rescue Task Force model to further build Incident Management Assistance Teams’ capability and “revising the National Response Framework and, as required, the Response Federal Interagency Operational Plan to emphasize stabilization of critical lifelines and coordination across critical infrastructure sectors.”

The report says FEMA should “promote federally supported, state-managed, locally executed logistics operations,” “increase FEMA readiness stocks outside the continental United States,” and “increase transportation planning, management, and contract support capacities.” The agency should “broaden” its quick-response reach to the most remote areas and “develop a more comprehensive understanding of local, regional, and national supply chains, as well as stronger relationships with critical private sector partners to support rapid restoration in response to catastrophic incidents.”

“Revise the National Response Framework and, as required, the Response Federal Interagency Operational Plan to emphasize stabilization of critical lifelines and coordination across critical infrastructure sectors,” the document continues. “Establish a standing Power Task Force as a collaborative, steady state partnership andtransition it to a crisis action planning cell under Emergency Support Function #12 partners during disaster operations. Encourage investment in redundant assets to maintain communications and supply temporary power.” Local governments as well as infrastructure operators are encouraged to invest in “more resilient infrastructure.”

“While the 2017 Hurricane Season has concluded, recovering from these devastating hurricanes will take years,” said the report. “FEMA is committed to supporting the long-term recovery of affected governments and survivors. In addition, FEMA has already begun acting on these recommendations to improve future disaster operations.”

FEMA Administrator Brock Long wrote in a letter to emergency management professionals in the report’s introduction that he’s “incredibly proud” of how the agency performed under “extraordinary circumstances,” and promised “bold action to improve the nation’s overall readiness and resiliency for future incidents.”

Long highlighted the need to build a culture of preparedness, ready the nation for catastrophic disasters, and reduce the complexity of FEMA while recognizing “there is no easy or one-size-fits-all solution to housing tens of thousands of displaced survivors.”

“Not surprisingly, the unprecedented scale and rapid succession of these disasters stretched response and recovery capabilities at all levels of government, and is transforming the way emergency managers prepare for and respond to disasters,” Long wrote. “The challenges we faced required that we innovate and deliver our programs differently.”

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a weekly columnist for the New York Observer and a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and Washington Bureau Chief for PJ Media. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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