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Overwhelmed FEMA called on 'bottom of the barrel' staff for 2017 disasters, GAO says

(CNN) The Federal Emergency Management Agency was so overwhelmed with other storms by the time Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last year that more than half of the workers it was deploying to disasters were known to be unqualified for the jobs they were doing in the field.

That's one revelation from a Tuesday report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), which portrays a federal government stretched thin by successive disasters to hit the United States and its territories last year. Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico followed Harvey and Irma -- all within 26 days of each other, according to the lead author of the report.

"By the time Maria hit Puerto Rico, they were down to the bottom of the barrel," Chris Currie, director of emergency management issues at the GAO told reporters in a conference call Tuesday. "They were having a struggle getting people there -- and not just people, but qualified people."

"The effect of this," Currie added, "is that during the response phase -- and especially during recovery -- these are the folks that are working with the territory and the state governments -- and they're not fully trained on FEMA's programs.

"A lot of the highly trained folks were deployed, not surprisingly, to Harvey and Texas," at least initially, he said.

In mid-October 2017, 54% of FEMA staff deployed to these disasters did not hold the title of "qualified," according to the report, citing the agency's own qualifications system. The unqualified employees -- a category that did not include contractors, local hires or employees from other agencies -- were listed by FEMA as either having "no proficiency" or as a "trainee/candidate."

"Federal, state, and territory officials noted that the shortages and lack of training led to confusion and lack of program expertise, particularly after Hurricane Maria," the report says.

A lack of bilingual workers also was an issue. Many Puerto Ricans speak Spanish as a first language, yet FEMA "did not have enough bilingual employees to communicate with local residents or translate documents," the GAO report says. "According to FEMA officials, this resulted in further delays while staff were reshuffled from other disasters to Puerto Rico."

The 2017 disaster season was "unprecedented" in the demands it placed on federal authorities, according to the GAO report, which analyzed primarily the federal response to the three major hurricanes in the Atlantic and wildfires in the West. A report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated the total damages from weather and climate disasters last year at more than $300 billion, "a new US annual record."

These are the types of disasters climate scientists expect to continue to become more extreme as humans burn fossil fuels and put heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, warming the climate. Last year, again, was one of the hottest years on record, according to a report released by the American Meteorological Society.

The cumulative effect of the 2017 storms left federal agencies overwhelmed, the GAO said, with Hurricane Maria being the most expensive and the most complicated of last year's storms and disasters.

"FEMA efforts in Puerto Rico alone were the largest and longest single response in the agency's history," the GAO report says. "As of April 2018, FEMA had obligated over $12 billion for response and recovery for Hurricane Maria, reflecting the scale and complexity of efforts given the widespread damage.

"FEMA tasked federal agencies with over 1,000 response mission assignments for Hurricane Maria at a cost of over $5 billion, compared to about 400 such assignments for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and the California wildfires combined."

Response to the disasters in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, which are US territories, was hindered by their remote locations in the Caribbean, limited local preparedness, outdated infrastructure, workforce constraints, among other challenges, the GAO report finds.

Puerto Rico's entire power grid was shut down by the September 20, 2017, storm, leaving many thousands of people without electricity for months. It took nearly a year for all residential customers to receive power.

FEMA has had problems with adequately qualified and trained workers before, said Currie, of the GAO, but those problems were "exacerbated given the workload of 2017." More than 14,000 federal employees were deployed in disaster response as of October, according to Tuesday's GAO report.

"Based on this experience, FEMA has taken action to increase preparedness for the 2018 hurricane season by updating hurricane plans, annexes and procedures for states, tribal lands and territories," the US Department of Homeland Security, which includes FEMA, wrote in a letter responding to the GAO report. "FEMA has also made improvements in staffing for incidents, logistics operations and refining communications from land mobile radios to satellite communications.

"Finally, FEMA has updated high priority national level contracts to be better prepared to cope with responding to multiple concurrent disasters across the nation."

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