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2017 Hurricanes and Wildfires

Posted on September 04, 2018
In 2017, four disasters over the space of four months—Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and the California wildfires—created an extraordinary demand for federal disaster assistance. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which coordinates the federal response to disasters, estimated the disasters affected 47 million people in areas including Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and California. According to FEMA, the 2017 hurricane season was among the busiest it ever experienced in disaster response activities. Today’s WatchBlog looks at challenges FEMA faced in helping communities and how it is preparing for future disasters. Listen to our podcast, and read on for more.
2017 Hurricanes and Wildfires
spacer Challenges faced in 2017 FEMA faced challenges executing its response and recovery missions, particularly in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. FEMA’s response efforts there were severely complicated and slowed due to staffing shortages from responding to multiple hurricanes, logistical challenges in getting relief to Puerto Rico, and lack of power and preparedness on the island. Figure showing damaged power lines and satellite dish in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in November 2017 The timing and scale of the disaster damages nationwide caused shortages in available debris removal contractors and delays in removing debris. Officials in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and California reported challenges with debris removal operations following each disaster in 2017, for example, clearing trees as well as residential, commercial, and construction goods, including hazardous materials. Figure showing residential debris awaiting pick up in Texas following historic flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017 Figure showing marine debris in Florida Keys canal following Hurricane Irma in 2017In addition, officials struggled to find temporary housing for disaster survivors in each location. For example, FEMA transported survivors in Puerto Rico to the mainland United States to stay in hotels. In Texas, FEMA used new authorities to provide Texas with over $1 billion to manage its own housing program. Figure showing temporary blue roofs in Puerto Rico installed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after Hurricane Maria in February 2018 The 2017 disasters overwhelmed FEMA’s workforce. FEMA was not prepared to deploy personnel to four near-simultaneous disasters. We also found that FEMA struggled to both train and retain employees. The figure below shows the total federal disaster workforce deployed to the various disasters in 2017. Figure showing number of federal disaster workforce deployed in response to the 2017 disasters in September 2017 through February 2018 Preparing for the 2018 hurricane season Based on its review of actions taken in response to the 2017 hurricanes, FEMA has taken steps to prepare for the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season. For example, FEMA updated hurricane response plans and procedures for all states and territories. In May 2018, FEMA also conducted a large 2-week training exercise to improve response and initial recovery operations capabilities. We are conducting a comprehensive review of the federal government’s national preparedness capabilities, training, and funding; we plan to issue that report in the summer of 2019. To learn more about FEMA’s response and recovery work in 2017, check out the full report.
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