Facing the storm: Congress must ask hard questions before the next disaster

Facing the storm: Congress must ask hard questions before the next disaster
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Weeks after Hurricane Florence slammed into the Carolinas, floodwaters are receding and the devastation’s full extent is coming into focus. Millions were affected, lives were lost, and communities will likely endure the aftermath for months, even years.

The nation has an opportunity to study the challenges, successes, and failures in the preparation and response to this and other recent disasters, and apply important lessons learned before the next one hits. Florence should be a wake-up call for Congress to ask tough questions and prepare the nation’s response for the inevitable next disasters.

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Lawmakers must recognize that large disasters are part of our new normal; indeed, the federal government’s own data shows increasing numbers, severity, and financial costs of major disasters over recent decades. It’s not a matter of if, but when we will suffer the next hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes, and the federal government must be prepared. 

Congress should demand that the administration detail its goals, timelines, and progress to date for meeting rising disaster challenges. 

In July, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released an “after-action” report on its response to the 2017 hurricanes, including Harvey, Irma and Maria. Importantly, the report describes how that year’s storms “stretched response and recovery capabilities at all levels of government” — including coordination and communication problems that resulted in delayed deliveries of lifesaving food, water, and medical care. A study commissioned by Puerto Rico’s governor put estimates of the death toll from Hurricane Maria at nearly 3,000.

In FEMA’s 60-plus page report the agency shares only scant outlines of its planned solutions, with few, if any, timelines or specific targets. And while the report repeatedly states the need to improve “coordination across critical infrastructure sectors,” the agency hasn’t updated its current planning documents to reflect this.

Here are two examples where Congress must press for details, especially when it comes to FEMA’s response in the first critical few days after a disaster strikes.

First, FEMA has acknowledged in its “after action report” that the 2017 hurricanes revealed shortcomings in how rapidly it delivers goods to disaster survivors. The agency has a network of eight regional warehouses storing food, water, blankets, medical kits, and other commodities. But, put simply, there was not enough stuff, and it moved too slowly. In a striking depiction of poor aid delivery, aerial photos from last month showed what may be millions of bottles of water on a Puerto Rico airport runway, forgotten and undelivered.

The administration, however, has yet to adequately describe its goals, requirements, or resources and management improvements necessary to deliver goods to disaster survivors.

Second, FEMA and other federal agencies rely heavily on private companies to provide goods and services for disaster victims — and although this need arises year after year, the lack of enough pre-established contracts, worked out, with proper vetting, months before a disaster strikes, is a recurring problem. Too often, agencies instead scramble to ink contracts through a rushed process. For the 2017 hurricanes, FEMA discovered that it did not have enough pre-established contracts to supply desperately needed meals, water, and plastic tarps. This contributed to its personnel struggling to ensure that the more than $6 billion in contractor spending was effectively spent, and not lost to waste, fraud, or abuse. 

FEMA acknowledged the contracting problems and says it will increase the number of pre-established contracts for future disasters. But here, again, the agency offers few specifics and no timelines, making it impossible for Congress and the public to assess progress.

Many more disaster issues need congressional scrutiny, from the pace of federal financial assistance for disaster victims, to the future of flood insurance, to whether FEMA has sufficient levels of trained and ready disaster-response personnel.

Recent press accounts describe the dearth of federal disaster oversight hearings in the past year, especially compared to the period after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. While recent congressional oversight has yielded important insights, many questions have gone unanswered. Worse, too many remain unasked, and too many solutions remain inadequately explored. 

FEMA Administrator Brock Long has promised the agency will “take bold action to improve the Nation’s overall readiness and resiliency for future incidents.”

Congress must hold him to that promise. 

Peter Tyler is senior policy analyst for the Project On Government Oversight.