An audit by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) has found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) did not ensure Puerto Rico effectively implemented the Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power (STEP) Pilot Program following Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017.
Hurricanes Irma and Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 5 and September 20, 2017, respectively. FEMA data reports that Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico’s 3.7 million residents without electricity and both hurricanes caused an unprecedented demand for sheltering. The Federal government approved a major disaster declaration for the hurricanes, which provided for a wide range of assistance for both emergency and permanent work in Puerto Rico. FEMA authorized the STEP pilot program on October 25 to address the need for shelter in Puerto Rico.
But OIG has found that FEMA did not ensure Puerto Rico implemented the STEP Pilot Program on time or met initial or extended deadlines to access homes and start repairs. In addition, the watchdog found that FEMA did not ensure home repairs were completed within six months, as established by Federal regulations for emergency work. The audit found that home repairs under the STEP Pilot Program were finally completed in January 2019 — 15 months after the October 2017 implementation.
FEMA officials attributed timeliness issues to specific challenges in Puerto Rico, such as hardware stores’ limited inventories. OIG also found that FEMA faced challenges due to the impact of the hurricanes, the geography of Puerto Rico, and local construction and supply limitations. In addition to these factors, the watchdog attributed the delays implementing the STEP Pilot Program in Puerto Rico to FEMA’s inadequate oversight. In particular, OIG said FEMA did not establish program- or award-specific performance goals, coordinate oversight efforts, document oversight activities, or validate the accuracy of progress-related data.
In a March 2019 report, FEMA put the total cost for the STEP Pilot Program in Puerto Rico at approximately $1.4 billion. In terms of both cost and the number of homes repaired, the STEP Pilot Program in Puerto Rico was the largest of its kind ever undertaken by FEMA.
Although FEMA has canceled the STEP Pilot Program for all future disasters, lessons can be learned to help its future oversight activities to ensure survivors do not shelter in unsafe and unsanitary conditions for lengthy periods.
OIG believes FEMA can avoid the shortcomings found in the audit by establishing program- or award-specific performance goals to measure the progress of recipients in implementing activities under state-administered sheltering assistance grant awards. FEMA agreed and said its Recovery Directorate will identify performance goals to measure the progress of recipients in implementing state-administered non-congregate sheltering activities and include these goals in guidance by the end of 2022.
In addition, the watchdog says FEMA should establish coordinated program- or award-specific oversight activities to monitor, assess, and provide guidance to sheltering assistance grant recipients on performance and corrective actions to address shortfalls. FEMA responded that it would do so by December 30, 2022.