FEMA and Disaster Resilience

“No power, no water, no transport, roads were closed, many streets broken, houses destroyed and people crying.”
Those were the words of Maria Meléndez, the mayor of Ponce, the largest city in southern Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. She had good reason to complain. As pointed out in the Economist, “[e]ven the most attentive government would have struggled with Maria.” But the federal government’s response fell far short of attentive: “Instead of strong leadership, to cut through the difficulties, Donald Trump provided little help.”

The United States needs to do better than that. In this chapter, I explain the many roles of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the lead agency in disaster response, in creating resilience — from its leadership during disasters like Hurricane Maria to setting standards for rebuilding and issuing flood maps — and highlight the ways in which it has failed in those roles. I then make a series of recommendations to remedy these failures and ensure that the federal government does better next time a life-threatening hurricane or other disaster hits Puerto Rico or any other part of the United States.

FEMA’s Roles and Failures

Disaster response

When people think of FEMA, they likely envision rescuers finding victims and taking them to safety. FEMA does provide emergency assistance, temporary housing, and other services. But its main job is to coordinate the response of many parts of the federal government. And normally, the federal government’s role itself is mostly supportive, with the main job of emergency response falling on state and local governments.

President Jimmy Carter created FEMA in 1978 by combining the functions of several different government agencies.[1] Today, its work is governed by the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006. The law charges FEMA with assisting the president in carrying out his functions under the core federal disaster law, the Stafford Act. According to 6 U.S.C. 313(b)(1):

The primary mission of the Agency is to reduce the loss of life and property and protect the Nation from all hazards, including natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and other man-made disasters, by leading and supporting the Nation in a risk-based, comprehensive emergency management system of preparedness, protection, response, recovery, and mitigation.

FEMA follows a national response framework that it issued in 2013. The framework emphasizes that disaster response requires “layered, mutually supporting capabilities of individuals, communities, the private sector, NGOs [non-governmental organizations], and governments at all levels.” Efforts are coordinated through the Incident Command System, including multiple agencies. No fewer than 14 agencies can be involved in post-disaster response.

First responders are rarely federal; instead, they are state and local personnel who are already on the scene. When the National Guard is deployed to the scene, it, too, is often under state control. Private entities, including utility companies, also play a key role in restoring power, water, and communications in the aftermath of a disaster.[2] Nevertheless, FEMA’s work is essential after a major disaster.  

Not since Katrina had FEMA faced a challenge like the summer of 2017, with Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria hitting the U.S. mainland and island territories, even as major wildfires raged in California. FEMA has greatly improved since the days when President Bush told “Brownie” he’d done “a heck of a job,” just before things really fell apart. By the time of Hurricane Sandy, the agency had learned from Katrina the importance of pre-positioning assets before the storm actually struck and having an early presidential declaration of national emergency. Those lessons were also followed with Harvey and Irma, but they proved not to be enough to cope with Maria.

FEMA’s post-mortem after Sandy indicated areas of strength and weakness. That was also the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) conclusion. In particular, GAO questioned whether FEMA had addressed gaps in the response capabilities of some agencies or had sufficiently improved logistics, such as its ability to track the location of supplies. FEMA also had room for improvement in several areas, including coordination of federal senior leadership, implementing the incident-management system, and connecting planning efforts with operational decision making.

Even given these shortfalls, however, there is little doubt that the federal response to Sandy was far superior to the response to Katrina. Unfortunately, the response to Hurricane Maria was a throwback to Katrina, with major response delays compared to Hurricane Harvey, which occurred just beforehand. The following table summarizes the differences between the responses in Texas and Puerto Rico, including data from later in the response effort. There is an unmistakable — and striking — disparity.

Table 1: Comparison of Texas and Puerto Rico Hurricane Responses

Government Action Hurricane Harvey (Texas) Hurricane Maria (Puerto Rico)
Helicopter deployment 73 helicopters within a week 70+ helicopters after 3 weeks
Immediate FEMA funding (nine days post-storm) $141.8 million $6.2 million
Meals delivered in first 9 days 5.1 million 1.6 million
Personnel deployed after first 9 days 30,000 10,000
FEMA payments approved in first nine days $142 million $6 million
Time after storm to approve permanent disaster work 10 days 43 days
Percent of relief applications approved as of day 80 39% 28%

An additional factor in the slow response was the inability to mobilize half of the Puerto Rico National Guard in the days after the disaster. Addressing criticism that FEMA’s response to Hurricane Maria was delayed and gave fewer resources to Puerto Rico than to the mainland, FEMA Administrator Brock Long stated that was “completely false.” He said “that in the first six months since Maria hit, FEMA invested $10 billion in Puerto Rico, in contrast to the $6 billion invested in the six months after Hurricane Katrina.” Long added that “[r]ecovery never moves as fast as people want it to” and that “in this case, moving faster can be detrimental from the standpoint of putting this money to work in a manner that truly makes Puerto Rico stronger and more resilient.” He attributed the slow progress of recovery to the difficulty of obtaining power poles and construction equipment given the slew of natural disasters that had struck the United States in the previous year.

There is no reason to doubt FEMA’s good faith or that the government ultimately devoted similar resources to response to Hurricane Maria as it did to other hurricanes. Response agencies were already stretched thin by the earlier major hurricanes of the season, the wildfires in California, and the logistic problems of aiding an island at some distance from the mainland. As the Economist put it, “Even the most attentive government would have struggled with Maria. FEMA was overstretched in Texas, Florida and California. Puerto Rico, unlike Houston, is rugged, 180 [kilometers] long, and has worn-out infrastructure and weak institutions.” Thus, equal resources would inevitably have led to unequal results. Indeed, this is likely always to be true when considering the needs of vulnerable populations, who are likely to need greater assistance than peers who have greater resources and fewer needs.

But even if FEMA devoted equivalent effort to the two disasters, equal effort was not necessarily the right standard, given the different levels of harm in Texas and Puerto Rico. Consider the following table:

Table 2: Comparison of Impacts (Texas vs. Puerto Rico)

  Texas Puerto Rico
Housing units destroyed or significantly damaged 42,000 (Greater Houston area, destroyed or significantly damaged) 400,000 (destroyed or significantly damaged)
Number of deaths 88 500-4,500
Number without power 280,000 1,000,000
Number without drinking water 45 systems in smaller communities shut down, Houston unaffected. One half of population (approx. 1.7 million) left without potable water
Number without phone, cell, or Internet service 180,000 homes 91% of island left without cell phone coverage

As bad as things were in Houston, they were much worse in Puerto Rico. Despite the massive destruction of infrastructure and housing in Puerto Rico, the government chose not to give it higher priority. Given the massive capabilities of the federal government, it seems likely that it could have overcome resource and logistic challenges if a more strenuous effort had been made.[3] As FEMA’s after-action report concedes, FEMA was unprepared for the disaster and its response effort fell far short of what was needed.

One cause of the delayed response was misguided advance planning. FEMA’s plan placed too much reliance on local institutions that already had serious problems of their own. Besides planning for a smaller hurricane, FEMA’s advance plan for Puerto Rico ignored the special issues handicapping the island’s resilience. According to Politico, which obtained a copy of the advance plan and shared it with experts:

FEMA did not anticipate having to take on a lead role in the aftermath of the disaster, despite clear signs that the island’s government and critical infrastructure would be overwhelmed in the face of such a storm. Instead, the document largely relied on local Puerto Rico entities to restore the island’s power and telecommunications systems. It didn’t mention the financial instability of the Puerto Rican government and Puerto Rican electrical utility, factors that significantly complicated the immediate response to Maria.

Rebuilding requirements

FEMA also plays an important role in disaster recovery through its role in the federal flood insurance program. This program, as currently designed, provides subsidies to many property owners to develop or maintain structures in unsafe areas. This problem is discussed in a previous chapter of this report. But FEMA also plays an important role in rebuilding, through requirements imposed on local governments and property owners in return for disaster funding.

In reauthorizing FEMA until July 31, 2018, Congress made an effort to improve resilience of local public infrastructure. For instance, in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, FEMA’s Public Assistance (PA) program will pay for public facility and infrastructure repairs up to current nationally accepted codes and standards regardless of local codes at the time of the storm. Also, the Stafford Act will now increase the federal share of disaster funding from 75 percent to 85 percent if communities take steps to plan for and mitigate against future disasters.

Flood mapping

Flood mapping defines the boundaries of flood zones, setting the parameters for flood insurance requirements and for community land-use planning. Unfortunately, there are significant issues regarding the validity of existing flood maps. Flood maps are variable in quality and age, with some now approaching 40 years in age. Updating these maps is important for several reasons. Land use patterns have changed, affecting the amount and speed of run-off. Land in some areas has subsided. And climate change will also impact precipitation patterns and sea levels.

As the Congressional Research Service noted in a report on the National Flood Insurance Program, there does not seem to be a clear policy on updating flood maps:

There is no consistent, definitive timetable for when a particular community will have their maps revised and updated. FEMA uses a process called the Coordinated Needs Management Strategy to prioritize, identify, and track the lifecycle of mapping needs.....Generally, flood maps may require updating when there have been significant new building developments in or near the flood zone, changes to flood protection systems (e.g., levees and sand dunes), and environmental changes in the community. Because of the variability in how and when a FIRM is updated, for example, one community may be undergoing the process of updating its map while a neighboring community is not, and one community may have had its map last updated in 2016 while a neighboring community had its last revised in 2005, etc.[4]

Communities and affected individuals have many opportunities for input, which is good in the abstract, but it can lead to lengthy delays due to resistance by individuals who fear new maps will result in changes in insurance requirements or trigger the need for more stringent land-use controls. As a result, the “FEMA mapping process, and some National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) maps, have been criticized for being out of date, using poor quality data or methods, or not taking account of changed conditions.[5]

In the past, FEMA has passed the cost of mapping on to flood insurance policy holders. Pending legislation would allow states and localities to develop their own flood maps subject to federal oversight and would require private insurers to contribute to funding the mapping program.

The mapping system is badly in need of reform. The Congressional Research Service observes that:

A 2013 report on the impact of climate change and population growth on the NFIP concluded that by 2100, the 1% annual-chance fluvial floodplain area is projected to grow nationally by about 45% . . . . In the populated areas of most interest to the NFIP, about 30% of these increases may be attributed to increased runoff caused by the increase in impermeable land surfaces caused by population growth and development, while the remaining 70% represents the influence of climate change.


What Should Be Done?

FEMA’s planning must include realistic assessments of local resiliency

The disaster response system works best with strong local partners. Some states — notably Texas, Florida, and California — are prone to disaster events. But they also have substantial public and private resources to bring to bear. Poorer jurisdictions such as Louisiana, Mississippi, or Puerto Rico are much less well positioned to respond to disaster. To assume they will play a leading or even equal role in the aftermath is unrealistic and a recipe for failure.

The federal government needs greater surge capacity

The likelihood of massive harm from natural disasters is only likely to increase due to climate change and the increasing population in vulnerable areas. This will necessarily increase the likelihood of two or more such events occurring in close succession. Thus, FEMA needs to plan for multiple major events, just as the Pentagon plans for the possibility of more than one simultaneous war.

High-level support from the presidential administration is indispensable

FEMA’s role requires it to summon and coordinate the efforts of agencies that are larger and much more powerful, pulling them away from their normal activities. In the event of a catastrophic event, this must happen quickly. Without strong support from the top, FEMA has limited ability to do this.

FEMA must update flood maps

Current flood maps are outdated. It might be helpful to issue maps in phases, beginning with a version including changes in flood frequency (due to sea-level rise or improved modeling) and topography (such as subsidence). The next phase would factor in landscape changes. The final map would also take into account existing flood protection. Phasing would allow useful information to be made available more quickly and would hopefully limit political disputes until all three stages were complete and a formal map was released.


[1] For an account of the formation and evolution of FEMA, see James F. Miskel, Disaster Response and Homeland Security: What Works, What Doesn’t 67­–74 (2008).

[2] Miskel, supra note 5, at 84–45.

[3] Presumably it would not have taken three weeks to get helicopters to the scene if Puerto Rico had been invaded by Venezuela, for instance.

[4] The CRS Report directs readers to additional resources on the remapping process including Section 4.4.2 in Technical Mapping Advisory Council, Annual Report, 2015, December 2015, pp. 4-55, and a section on Process, in Technical Mapping Advisory Council, National Flood Mapping Program Review, June 2016, pp. 13-17, both at http://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/documents/111853.

[5] For a report on possible changes, see Technical Mapping Advisory Council, TMAC 2016 Annual Report, December 2016, p. 3-2, https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1492803841077-57e4653a1b2de856e14672e56d6f0e64/TMAC_2016_Annual_Report_(508).pdf.