Puerto Rico

GAO: Half of FEMA Personnel Deployed to Puerto Rico Weren’t Qualified

Written by SK Ashby

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) acknowledges that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) faced some difficulties in responding to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico beyond their control, such as the long distance between the island and the mainland, but a new report from the GAO still takes a very big swing at FEMA and tells us something we didn't know.

We already know FEMA did not preposition enough resources to respond to Hurricane Marina and, in fact, they actually removed supplies from the island just days before Maria made landfall, but the GAO's report says FEMA knowingly deployed personnel to Puerto Rico that weren't qualified for the job they were sent to do by the agency's own standards.

"A lot of the highly trained folks were deployed, not surprisingly, to Harvey and Texas," at least initially, [GAO director of emergency management issues Chris Currie] said.

In mid-October 2017, 54% of FEMA staff deployed to these disasters did not hold the title of "qualified," according to the report, citing the agency's own qualifications system. The unqualified employees -- a category that did not include contractors, local hires or employees from other agencies -- were listed by FEMA as either having "no proficiency" or as a "trainee/candidate."

"Federal, state, and territory officials noted that the shortages and lack of training led to confusion and lack of program expertise, particularly after Hurricane Maria," the report says.

In addition to being unqualified, FEMA also deployed people who weren't physically capable of handling the hot and humid environment according to the GAO.

The GAO report also says FEMA's response to multiple disasters in 2017 was exceptionally vulnerable to fraud for reasons that aren't clear right now.

Overall, the agency failed to adequately house disaster victims, distribute financial assistance in a timely fashion or do enough to prevent fraud.

For instance, scammers implemented “a well-organized and coordinated identity theft fraud scheme” in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and California that hadn’t shown up following prior disasters, according to the report.

The GAO report also indicates that FEMA deployed very few Spanish-speaking employees to Puerto Rico which is obviously a problem because most people there speak Spanish.

A very generous interpretation of these events would say the FEMA did the best it could with the resources it had available, but I don't necessarily buy that. If the federal government lacked the resources to respond, it should have pressed Congress for more funding. We also have a vague indication that the agency's best were deployed to Texas while people who literally weren't qualified for anything were sent to Puerto Rico as if it were an afterthought.

If FEMA is so understaffed that it must resort to deploying people who aren't qualified by their own standards, that doesn't bode well for the future. It's not as if we'll never have another bad hurricane or wildfire season converge at the same time. That may even be the new normal. Even the disasters we've seen probably aren't nearly as bad as what may be possible in the future.

While there is a tropical storm and possible hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico as I write this, 2018 has been an exceptionally quiet storm season. That won't always be the case in the future and the tides aren't getting any lower.