The coastal surge from Hurricane Maria reached up to 5 feet or more devastating the town of Toa Baja in Puerto Rico which can be seen in the water lines on homes 1 October 2017. In addition to flooding many homes also lost their roofs leaving many people exposed to the elements or forcing them to abandoned their homes. Photo: Ricky Flores / Carrie Cochran / USA TODAY NETWORK

By Joel Shannon
12 July 2018

(USA TODAY) – The Federal Emergency Management Agency admitted Thursday that it drastically underestimated the devastation that Hurricane Maria was about to unleash on Puerto Rico in 2017, hampering the agency's ability to react to the worst natural disaster to ever hit the island.

The findings are in FEMA’s after-action report summarizing the agency’s performance in 2017, a busy year that featured three catastrophic hurricanes.

It follows widespread criticism of the agency's handling of the 2017 hurricane season, particularly its response to hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico, knocking out power to virtually the entire U.S. territory of more than 3 million people.

The report says FEMA's planning in the region was incomplete, did not adequately account for the possibility of multiple major disasters in a short amount of time, and underestimated the impact of "insufficiently maintained infrastructure" in Puerto Rico.

“FEMA leadership acknowledged that the Agency could have better anticipated that the severity of hurricanes Irma and Maria would cause long-term, significant damage to the territories’ infrastructure,” the report says. “Leadership also recognized that 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.”

A May 2018 Harvard study estimated that over 4,000 deaths were associated with the storm, contradicting an official estimate of 64. FEMA's Thursday report said the fatality estimate was being reviewed by the government of Puerto Rico. […]

FEMA's report cited challenges unique to Puerto Rico, hinting at a conflict that at times played out publicly.

Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, criticized the Trump administration's response in Puerto Rico and publicly confronted FEMA at a news conference, saying the lack of better assistance could be described as genocide. [more]

FEMA admits shortcomings in 2017 hurricane response

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