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Disastrously Unprepared

​Effective emergency response requires more than rapid, targeted action and brave rescue efforts. The efficacy of the response also depends on what takes place before the event, when the responding agency is shoring up and maintaining its programs and resources so that it is prepared for whatever disaster or force of nature might be in the works.

Two recent reports illustrate the importance of pre-response actions. The two studies critique the response to two of the most significant disasters of the last few years: the 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season, which featured the nightmarishly destructive trio of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and the ongoing contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

The first report, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), found that FEMA went into the hurricane season understaffed, not properly trained in certain areas, and lacking proper assessments of the vulnerability of regional infrastructure and the possibility of long-term damage.

Similarly, the second report revealed that, during the Flint water crisis, both the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) failed to maintain key inventories and effective risk assessment procedures. These failures led to a flawed response, and ultimately, more lead exposure for residents.

The first study, 2017 Hurricane Season FEMA After-Action Report, analyzes the agency's response to hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, which made landfall as major storms in quick succession. Specifically, the report focuses on the response efforts made from August 25 to November 30, 2017. The three storms were part of one of the most destructive hurricane seasons in U.S. history: 10 hurricanes in a seven-month period from April to November 2017.

One crucial error made by FEMA before the hurricanes hit land was underestimating how much long-term damage the storms would cause to each region. Although capability assessments and exercise reports regarding the state of the area's infrastructure were available, the agency did not make proper use of that information, so it failed to produce realistic damage predictions.

"Emergency managers at all levels could have better leveraged existing information to proactively plan for and address such challenges, both before and immediately after the hurricanes," the report found.

Moreover, FEMA entered the hurricane season considerably understaffed. This resulted in staffing shortages for virtually every incident response by FEMA in 2017.

For example, FEMA estimates that 6,630 staff are required to stage a sufficient response to a Level 1 incident, but the agency never reached that staffing number in responding to the five Level 1 incidents that occurred in 2017. Staffing for the Hurricane Maria response seemed the most inadequate. After the storm made landfall in Puerto Rico in late September 2017, staffing peaked at only 1,200 in late November. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, staffing peaked at only 429 in late October.

In some workforce areas, these staffing shortages were extreme. FEMA divides its incident workforce into cadres, or groups of employees who have completed the requirements for deployments. In August 2017, force strength among many of these cadres was far short of normal. For example, staffing in the safety personnel cadre was only about 40 percent of target, and staffing in the operations cadre was roughly 50 percent of target. Overall, from August 25 to November 11, 13 of 23 cadres were operating at 25 percent or lower staffing levels for 45 days or more.

And FEMA also erred in relying too much on commercial cellular and broadband communications when conducting its response activities. "For example, limited cellular service impacted the ability of disaster survivors to register for FEMA assistance," the report found.

Although FEMA did deploy its Mobile Emergency Response Support (MERS) vehicles with mobile satellite, radio, and logistical support in Puerto Rico, it still ran into problems. "Some FEMA satellite phones could not correctly operate in the Caribbean. Many staff who received satellite phones did not know how to properly use them," the report found. Moreover, the demand for satellite phones and other contingency devices outstripped supply, and logistics problems delayed the acquisition and shipment of additional devices to Puerto Rico.

The Flint report, Management Weaknesses Delayed Response to Flint Water Crisis, was conducted by the EPA's Office of Inspector General (OIG). It looked at the EPA's response to the contamination of the community water system in the city of Flint, Michigan, and also how EPA exercised its oversight of the crisis. The crisis occurred after Flint switched its drinking water supply in April 2014, and inadequate water treatment exposed many city residents to lead.

In sum, the report found management and preparedness lapses by both MDEQ and EPA. 

For example, MDEQ is charged with ensuring that Flint develops and maintains an inventory of lead service lines that might be needed for sampling purposes. But MDEQ failed to maintain this inventory; without it, the city could not properly prioritize its sampling efforts so that high-risk areas would be sampled.

When contamination did occur, MDEQ was slow to react. The agency did not take formal enforcement action until August 2015. Instead, it advised Flint administrators to conduct additional tests, and it delayed the installation of corrosion control treatments. "The decision to delay corrosion control treatments prolonged residents' exposure to lead," the report found.

EPA also came into the crisis at least partially unprepared. It is charged with providing oversight that states comply with clean water requirements. But before the crisis occurred, EPA did not establish clear roles and responsibilities, risk assessment procedures, nor other proactive oversight tools. As a result, "while Flint residents were being exposed to lead in drinking water, the federal response was delayed," the report found.

And so, in the future, the OIG is calling for the EPA to be more aggressive in establishing and maintaining its oversight program, and to be more proactive in assisting the states with their water supply.

"In order for the EPA to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its federal response to drinking water emergencies, the agency and its regional offices must understand their oversight tools and authorities," said Charles Brunton, a program analyst in OIG's Office of Audit and Evaluation, in a discussion of the report on the OIG's podcast. "The EPA also must not be reluctant to use those tools and authorities to assist states in protecting public health."