Natural Disasters

As Tropical Storm Barry Approaches, the GAO Highlights FEMA's Past Failings

Unclear and contradictory procedure guidelines slowed down relief efforts in Puerto Rico in 2017. Will it happen again this year? Probably.


As New Orleans braces for Tropical Storm Barry, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a damning report about the feds' performance after hurricanes Irma and Maria struck Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2017. The storms left much of Puerto Rico without power for months and claimed around 3,000 lives.

The report lays out several problems with how the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) performed. One is a basic lack of clarity about how to distribute aid. According to the GAO, municipal officials in both territories—and FEMA officials themselves—found that FEMA's official procedures often came with "missing, incomplete, or inconsistent guidance." These difficulties in communication led to delays in project development and contract negotiations, and delays after disasters can be deadly.  

That failure to coordinate was on full display when about a million water bottles were left to spoil on a Puerto Rican airstrip for a year. After the story of the wasted water broke, both FEMA and the local government tried to blame the other—little consolation to the residents of Puerto Rico, who could have used that water after the storms. 

Unfortunately, this is nothing new. As Reason has reported many times, FEMA frequently struggles with the administration of aid.

In a 2018 report on its Puerto Rico operations, FEMA acknowledged some of its failings and said it has taken some steps to improve its administration, such providing additional training for employees. The GAO report says that it's too soon to tell if FEMA's adjustments have improved the agency's capacity to act. Maybe FEMA will respond better to Barry than it did to Irma and Maria. But its track record doesn't inspire much confidence—it has displayed slow response times, a lack of preparedness, and billions of dollars in waste after many major natural disasters.

Fortunately, FEMA won't be the only force on the scene. Private groups and decentralized networks have responded effectively to many disasters. One of the most famous is the "Cajun Navy," a group of skilled Louisianan boaters who helped save countless lives in Houston after Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017. Meanwhile, the Waffle House has come to play an important role in storm preparedness, with even government agencies using the so-called "Waffle House Index"—whether or not the restaurant chain's locations have closed—to judge the severity of a storm. Other nongovernmental bodies that have proven effective after disasters range from Walmart to Occupy Wall Street.

Hopefully, FEMA will have improved its capabilities once Tropical Storm Barry arrives. But if it hasn't, others will be there to help.