Fast Facts

Federal agencies faced unprecedented challenges responding to 2017's Hurricane Maria, which caused extensive damage in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The Federal Communications Commission's part included gathering network outage information and creating a task force to support communications restoration.

We found unclear federal guidance on FCC's role in disaster response, which could have contributed to confusion and delays. Also, FCC has not provided a complete and accurate account of its disaster response, which could help with preparation for future disasters. Our recommendations address these issues.

Infrastructure damage from Hurricane Maria in the U.S. Virgin Islands, September 2017

A woman walking in the middle of a street with broken utility poles and downed powerlines caused by Hurricane Maria

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took several actions to support telecommunications restoration following Hurricane Maria. For example, FCC collected network outage information, provided staff assistance to Puerto Rico, created the Hurricane Recovery Task Force to support communications restoration in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and made funds available for network restoration. However, GAO found that FCC's disaster response role was unclear in guidance published by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), even though the guidance states that all levels of government should understand their respective roles. In particular, DHS did not define specific actions for FCC in the emergency support function guidance related to restoring communications infrastructure; this lack of clarity could have contributed to confusion and delays in the hurricane's aftermath. By updating the emergency support guidance with FCC's role clearly defined, DHS could help to reduce confusion and leverage FCC's knowledge on new or evolving technologies that could assist in faster network recovery following disasters.

Aerial View of Downed Tower in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, September 2017

Aerial View of Downed Tower in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, September 2017

FCC identified lessons learned to enhance its disaster response and recovery efforts following the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season and issued a report in August 2018 that included observations from four hurricanes, including Hurricane Maria. For example, FCC noted that it could enhance its role in training and improve its coordination with federal partners. However, specifically related to Hurricane Maria, GAO found that FCC obtained limited public input and that the Hurricane Recovery Task Force's efforts lacked transparency because FCC had not publicly communicated the task force's actions or findings. Lacking transparent communications on the task force's actions and findings, the public does not have a complete and accurate account of FCC's response efforts for Hurricane Maria; such an account could aid future disaster preparation. By publicly reporting the task force's efforts, FCC could help ensure territorial government officials and others understand what FCC has accomplished and what additional actions are needed to build telecommunications networks that are more resilient.

Why GAO Did This Study

Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2017, causing great physical harm to residents and severely damaging the islands' critical infrastructure, including telecommunications networks (see photo). Federal agencies faced unprecedented challenges in the hurricane's aftermath that complicated efforts to address telecommunications outages. While DHS is the lead agency in federal disaster response, FCC has a supporting role related to telecommunications issues.

GAO was asked to review FCC's response to telecommunications outages after Hurricane Maria. This report examines (1) FCC's actions to support telecommunications restoration after Hurricane Maria and the extent to which FCC's disaster response role is clearly defined, and (2) FCC's efforts to identify lessons learned with public input and the extent to which FCC publicly communicated those efforts. GAO analyzed agency reports, assessed agency efforts against applicable criteria, and interviewed government officials and industry and advocacy representatives to obtain a range of non-generalizable viewpoints.

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Recommendations

GAO is making two recommendations including that DHS should update its emergency support function guidance to clearly define FCC's disaster response role, and that FCC should enhance the transparency of its operations by publicly reporting on its Hurricane Recovery Task Force. FCC and DHS concurred with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Homeland Security 1. The Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with FCC, should update Emergency Support Function #2 to list specific roles and responsibilities for FCC, including identifying new or evolving technologies that could assist disaster response efforts and supporting training or exercises on the appropriate use of such technologies prior to disasters. (Recommendation 1)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Communications Commission 2. The Chair of FCC should enhance the transparency and accountability of FCC's operations by publicly reporting on the actions and findings of its Hurricane Recovery Task Force and determine if any changes in policy are needed to ensure FCC has transparent operations for any future disaster-related task forces. (Recommendation 2)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

Full Report

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