What FEMA Learned From Its Massive Disaster Relief Effort In Puerto Rico

Criticized for high-profile mistakes, the agency tells A Plus what it will change going forward — and what, to its estimation, went right.

After Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) executed the largest disaster food operation in United States history.

Although the response was a herculean effort executed with the best intentions, it was marred by high-profile mistakes that dominated news coverage around the disaster for weeks. Now, after dispatching 18,000 federal forces, delivering over 61 million meals and contracting out millions more, the agency spoke to A Plus about its work on the island and how it plans to adjust its strategy going forward.

Long before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, FEMA knew the island was in a precarious position. Marty Bahamonde, the director of FEMA's Disaster Operations Division, told A Plus that it had been working with Puerto Rican officials to prepare for a serious storm and the potential outcome. FEMA's biggest fears surrounded the outdated power grid, which Bahamonde said had not been maintained properly. 

Loíza, PR, September 21, 2017 - Members of the community of Miñi Miñi use diggers to help get their neighbors out of flooded areas.
Loíza, PR, September 21, 2017 - Members of the community of Miñi Miñi use diggers to help get their neighbors out of flooded areas. FEMA / Yuisa Rios

"As soon as that storm got to a Cat 3, we were really worried," Bahamonde said. "We've known for years that if a major catastrophic hurricane hit Puerto Rico, there were going to be some big problems. They weren't going to lose power for a couple days. They were going to lose power for a long time."

But Maria didn't stay Category 3. On Sept. 20, 2017, Maria reached its peak intensity with 175 mph winds just southeast of Puerto Rico. By the time it made landfall later that morning, it was a Category 4 hurricane with 155 mph winds. Complicating matters further was that it hit just two weeks after Hurricane Irma, which left tens of thousands without power. 

"The hurricane hits, and the entire power structure goes down," Bahamonde said. "The towers that run the lines were crumpled like folding cards. It was after a couple days that we truly understood the magnitude of this disaster." 

Bahamonde, who has worked at FEMA for 25 years, said he'd never seen a disaster like this. He remembers Hurricane Ike, which hit Houston in 2008 and left more than two million people without power for a week. Some residents were without power for a month. Although Houston was without power for longer than any other major U.S. had been at the time, accessing the area was relatively easy for emergency services. 

Puerto Rico has a larger population, had a longer power outage and is, of course, an island. FEMA knew early in the process that it could be months until the power came back on, and the only way to help was by bringing supplies, water and manpower across 1,000 miles of open water.

"I think it's fair to say the worst case scenario happened," Bahamonde told A Plus.

In a rush to get food and water to the island, FEMA began contracting agencies and people to help with the aid. One such contract was $156 million awarded to Tiffany Brown, an entrepreneur in Atlanta who had no experience in disaster relief that approached the scale FEMA needed to execute. She was contracted to deliver 30 million meals, but by the time 18.5 million of those were due, she had only delivered 50,000. And they were packaged without the pouches needed to heat the food up.

FEMA terminated her contract, but the damage was done. Bahamonde contends that — while the contract was an obvious failure — nobody missed a meal because of the failed contract with Brown. 

"What the failed delivery of food did was just diminish the amount of commodities in the pipeline, but never to a level where we were close to being out of food," Bahamonde said. "That is why we had multiple contracts, so instead of having say 10 days of food in reserve, we had a few days fewer but never to the point that we would be in immediate danger of not having food."

He added that while FEMA always has contracts in place before the hurricane season, the "historic" three consecutive hurricanes left them scrambling for more resources. This contract was one of those additional contracts.

San Juan, PR, September 24, 2017 - The National Guard delivers FEMA's emergency food and water to families in Barrio Obrero. FEMA and the National Guard work together to provide life sustaining resources in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. 
San Juan, PR, September 24, 2017 - The National Guard delivers FEMA's emergency food and water to families in Barrio Obrero. FEMA and the National Guard work together to provide life sustaining resources in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.  FEMA / Yuisa Rios

While that contract structure is always part of FEMA's plan, the controversy has still had its fallout. Members of Congress are now calling for an investigation into the response and the way FEMA decided to hand out contracts. 

There were other areas of concern. FEMA was criticized for the content of some of its food packages. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz rifled through a box of chocolate pudding and snacks before "throwing the box aside as if disgusted," The Washington Post reported. Images of FEMA deliveries with Cheez-It crackers, beef jerky and Skittles went viral on social media. 

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you that we sent the most nutritious meals. We didn't," Bahamonde said. "I was down there and I opened up a box and thought, 'Really? This is what we sent them?'"

Again, though, Bahamonde contends the extraordinary circumstances demanded this response. Per Bahamonde, there aren't 60 million ready-to-eat military meals sitting around in storage due to limited shelf-life. FEMA sent things that had much longer expiration dates, such as Doritos. While celebrity chef José Andrés was praised for cooking fresh meals (which were funded, in part, by FEMA), Bahamonde pointed out that it took him a month to distribute 2.3 million meals. 

"We provided food that people could eat, that they could survive on until more of those ready-to-eat meals could come," Bahamonde said.

But some didn't get food quickly enough. In rural areas of the island, Puerto Ricans who slipped through the cracks hiked miles just to get drinking water and food. FEMA had a fleet of helicopters that flew over 4,000 deliveries in 62 days to rural parts of the island and it still wasn't enough. Several newspapers reported that aid was not getting out of San Juan, the island's capital. The destruction of cell phone towers and choppy communication throughout Puerto Rico only exacerbated these issues.

Bahamonde, who used to be a television reporter, acknowledges the value of journalists who highlighted those failures, and said he's learned to articulate a helpful message to members of the media: if you run across a family or neighborhood not getting aid, pick up the phone and tell FEMA. Asking for courtesy calls before a story runs can help tip FEMA off to neighborhoods or regions where aid is lacking and ends up being a part of the actual disaster response. 

Humacao, PR, October 8, 2017 - Two lines of survivors from Mariana Sector in Humacao help unload food & water delivered by FEMA and the military.
Humacao, PR, October 8, 2017 - Two lines of survivors from Mariana Sector in Humacao help unload food & water delivered by FEMA and the military.  FEMA / Eliud Echevarria 

After Hurricane Katrina, the agency re-evaluated how it contracted food and water and the ways it responded to large-scale disasters. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, it plans to do the same, Bahamonde said. One of the biggest takeaways for FEMA is addressing the inherent challenges of getting relief to islands without neighboring states to set up a staging area for support. FEMA knows it needs to lay out better plans to get food and supplies quickly across bodies of water, too.

"Now we have a much better understanding of what it takes to make an air bridge to get supplies in, or when you lose a power system for that long what kinds of things you'll need," Bahamonde said. "I can guarantee you that Puerto Rico — the hurricane there — will create lessons learned for years to come."

FEMA is also hoping to better educate people in high-risk areas about how to execute their own disaster response. That goes not just for Americans living on islands, but also for those living on the coasts of the mainland. According to Bahamonde, anyone with the financial means to purchase flood insurance and keep month's worth of nonperishable food in storage should do so. Everyone should also have a plan for their family if they need to leave their house quickly because of a hurricane.

A $90 billion disaster relief package was included in the Congressional budget deal, and Bahamonde doesn't imagine that preparing for disasters and addressing their aftermaths will get cheaper anytime soon.

"Never before have we had three major hurricanes hit U.S. entities in the same year," he said. "That's not by accident. That's not just luck. Climate change is here. It's just changing that mindset… it's only going to get worse, and everybody, everybody, has a role in disaster response, not just the federal government."

Cover image via FEMA /  Eliud Echevarria.

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