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Hurricane Maria Aftermath: FEMA Admits to Deadly Mistakes in Puerto Rico

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Many roofs were torn off when high winds from Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico. U.S. Air Force photo by A1C Nicholas Dutton

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was sorely unprepared to handle Hurricane Maria and the subsequent crisis in Puerto Rico, the agency admitted in an internal performance assessment memo released last week.

FEMA's after-action report details how the agency's warehouse on the island was nearly empty due to relief efforts from Hurricane Irma when Maria made landfall last September, with no cots or tarps and little food and water.


The report finds that the agency was severely understaffed and relied on "underqualified" staffers, and that leadership lacked key information on the island's infrastructure both before and after the storm. The report advises that communities and families in remote areas must prepare independently of the agency for future weather disasters.

As reported by NPR:

President Trump, at one point, responded to questions about the response, saying, Puerto Ricans, quote, "want everything done for them." And San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who ended up in her own verbal battle with Trump, said she believes this report shows FEMA was negligent in how it responded to the island. Inside the agency, FEMA Administrator Brock Long, published a response acknowledging that the agency had work to do. He said the report gives FEMA the, quote, "opportunity to learn from the 2017 hurricane season and be more prepared for the next one." And that hurricane season is now a month underway.

The New York Times editorial board described FEMA's response as "tragically inadequate" and warned that the agency must do better:

There can be no excuse next time for the sort of incompetence and chaos that marked FEMA's work on Puerto Rico. But there is another lesson that does not figure into FEMA's account.
Many mainland Americans persist in regarding Puerto Ricans as second-class citizens. The condescension with which Puerto Rico is too often held was clearly behind President Trump's downplaying the disaster and his complaints about the cost, and most likely behind the radically underreported casualties.
When the next killer storms strike, and they will, all Americans should be secure in the knowledge that their government, local and federal, will be there ready and able to help.

For a deeper dive:

New York Times, NPR, ABC, Frontline, Huffington Post. Commentary: New York Times editorial

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