Disaster Discourse: The Hagerty Blog

FEMA’s 2017 After Action Report: Reflecting on FEMA’s Role in Recent Disaster Responses

On July 12th, FEMA released a rather candid After Action Report (AAR) on its response to the 2017 Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria – which together devastated broad swathes of the US last year.

The AAR is candid in the sense that it outlines objective missteps, which is laudable when considered in context: FEMA willingly published a report that admitted fault in stark detail, knowing it would cause an uproar.

But the report also lays bare an existential question: what should FEMA’s role be in disaster response?

FEMA tries to answer this question through the AAR’s many finding (18 in total) and recommendations (30 in total).  It points to some of the failures in FEMA’s response to Harvey, Irma, and Maria to define and underscore a sharp paradigm that disaster response and recovery should be locally implemented, state managed, and federally supported.

Hagerty’s Top Takeaways of the AAR

  • Planning and strategic operations with state, local, tribal and territorial governments need improvement and a stronger focus on preparedness

 FEMA wants to delegate responsibilities down to state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) governments, with a significantly smaller federal footprint for each disaster.  There is real merit in this goal, though no specific funding is earmarked to help these entities manage the massive increased workload.  Those who have seen the gritty details of disaster recovery fear that FEMA is of two minds on this issue.  On the one hand, it wants to shed responsibility and play a more support role; on the other hand, the process in place for FEMA to review and approve recovery projects requires significant scrutiny, making it hard for local leaders to directly dictate recovery.  To successfully devolve responsibility downward, FEMA will need to help fund that transition of responsibility and train its legions of staffers to more willingly approve SLTT response activities, recovery reconstruction plans, and other efforts that may not comport perfectly to FEMA policy prescriptions.

  • The 2017 hurricane season and the associated federal response was unprecedented.

All three major hurricanes made landfall in the US between August 25 and September 20, 2017, a tight timeline for such destruction, and rank among the top five costliest hurricanes on record totaling an estimated $265 billion in damages.  This is more than 3.5 times damages from Hurricane Sandy.  When adding the 2017 wildfires in California to the equation, nearly 15% of the US population was affected by 2017 disaster.

FEMA deployed 17,000 individuals in addition to about 14,000 staffers from various offices of the Department of Defense.  FEMA provided over $2 billion of commodities to affected states and territories.  As of May 2018, almost 4.8 million households had registered for FEMA assistance – more than all registrants in the previous 10 years combined.

Source: 2017 Hurricane Season FEMA After-Action Report

  • The unprecedented hurricane season stretched FEMA capacity and hampered response in the Caribbean.

FEMA’s was not prepared for an event in which significant supplies would be needed for two separate incidents in the Caribbean. FEMA distributed most of its regional supply of several key commodities to the US Virgin Islands (USVI) after Hurricane Irma, leaving little to no water, tarps, or cots in the Caribbean Distribution Center when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico (PR).

The Governments of PR and the USVI did not have the logistics capacity to complete tasks that are normally the responsibility of SLTT governments, such as last-mile distribution of commodities. FEMA struggled to successfully take on these additional tasks.

FEMA’s ability to respond effectively under difficult conditions was complicated by the fact that FEMA’s workforce entering the 2017 hurricane season was below target levels. As a result, by the time Hurricane Maria impacted PR, FEMA was not adequately staffed to respond. For example, more than 80% of FEMA’s qualified logistics staff had already been deployed to Texas and Florida prior to Hurricane Maria impacts.

  • Future responses must prioritize restoring lifelines like power, communications, transportation, water, and wastewater treatment infrastructure.

Disruptions to telecommunications, for example, led to weak situational awareness immediately following the major hurricanes of 2017 – affecting every aspect of response and recovery operations.  To address this, the AAR recommends revising the National Response Framework and the Response Federal Agency Interoperability Plan.  This recommendation is repeated five times in the AAR.  And a core feature of these recommendations is to better integrate the private sector, such as partnering to support rapid restoration of critical lifeline services, which is key since much of the critical infrastructure is privately owned.

For example, one such recommendation calls for FEMA to establish a standing Power Task Force to coordinate public and private stakeholders during disaster response.  In Puerto Rico, deferred maintenance across Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) assets contributed to widespread power outages.  And PREPA will now try to privatize its power generation plants to help cope with its public debt and recovery challenges – further highlighting the need for an effective Power Task Force that coordinates public and private efforts.

We at Hagerty want to stress that while the immediate response phase of these three major hurricanes is over and should be examined, the time horizon of recovery has a long tail – often many years if not decades.

This lengthy timeline to recovery is the uncomfortable truth about large-scale disasters.  Emergency response is a decisive phase in which impacted communities are most vulnerable.  But, plans for longer term and more resilient rebuilding often do not take shape until long after the media coverage of the immediate response and emergency activities subsides.  So, after looking back, we hope FEMA now focuses forward to assess and improve its role vis-à-vis existing recovery efforts across the country.  At Disaster Discourse, we will continue to keep tabs on the slower, but more perhaps impactful recovery phase as it unfolds.

Garrett Ingoglia is Vice President at Hagerty Consulting, where he provides strategic advice on disaster recovery and preparedness to key clients. Garrett has been helping clients prepare for and recover from disasters for more than 15 years. He developed a regional response plan for the San Francisco Bay Area, supported FEMA and HUD disaster housing efforts after the 2004 Florida Hurricanes and Hurricane Katrina, and helped FEMA and the City of New York develop and implement innovative solutions to speed recovery and increase resilience after 9/11.

Ari Renoni s a Deputy Director of Recovery Programs with Hagerty Consulting based in NYC.  He serves as the Deputy Policy Team Lead supporting clients in the NYC Metro Area. Prior to Hagerty, Ari worked for the UN World Food Programme (WFP), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Ministry of Education in Namibia, and for the Center for Policy Research at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, where he also graduated with two graduate degrees: Master of Public Administration and Master of Arts in International Affairs.