• The Star Staff

FEMA: Puerto Rico’s current readiness to handle hurricanes requires governor’s leadership

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

Although Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced said earlier this week that emergency plans are ready to go and that every agency is aware of its responsibilities in an emergency due to an atmospheric phenomenon, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has said otherwise, declaring in a letter earlier this month that after almost three years since Hurricane Maria, the government is neither prepared for nor capable of responding to a major climatic event.

According to the missive released by CBS Lead National Correspondent David Begnaud, FEMA Region II Administrator Thomas von Essen sent a letter on July 14 to Vázquez in which he described raising concerns about hurricane season preparations with La Fortaleza Chief of Staff Antonio Pabón, Public Safety (DPS) Secretary Pedro Janer and former Emergency Management and Disaster Administration Bureau (NMEAD by its Spanish acronym) Deputy Commissioner Marcelo Rolón. However, he said they were unaware of any issues and that the concerns were never brought to La Fortaleza. The officials’ lackluster response in turn caused a lack of faith in the DPS on the part of the federal agency, so von Essen brought the issues to the governor herself.

“I understand that you inherited a very complex government system as it relates to managing disaster preparedness and response activities and that considerable Commonwealth resources are currently committed to the FEMA-4339-DR (Hurricane Maria) recovery, but we are in the midst of the 2020 hurricane season and it is predicted to be particularly active,” von Essen said in the letter. “Puerto Rico’s current readiness posture for handling a significant hurricane, earthquake or a second wave of COVID-19, requires your leadership.”

Here are some of the perceptions and concerns FEMA Region II raised based on a June 15-19 trip to Puerto Rico:

Inability to staff an Emergency Operation Center (EOC) for 24/7 during a response. The NMEAD Incident Management Team, which was initially composed of 35 core members that were trained by the federal agency, now consists of only nine members as the rest were realigned under the DSP. Von Essen said this leaves a void within the DSP and other entities in terms of responding at any time to an emergency.

“Due to the lack of staffing and departure of previously trained staff, there is a great dependency on other agencies to fill all-hazards positions and the current footprint within the EOC cannot support 24/7 operations,” the letter said. “[NMEAD] informed my staff that over 29 of the FEMA-trained [NMEAD] staff have been realigned under the Department of Public Safety, leaving critical voids within the [NMEAD]. Also, key positions, such as Information Technology, contracting, administrative support, among others, are now physically reporting to the DPS, which represents a challenge when responding to a hurricane.”

The FEMA Region II administrator also called out DPS for an “inability to fill vacant positions,” as positions such as NMEAD commissioner, deputy commissioner, training and exercise officer, mitigation director, NMEAD zone planners, and others have been vacant for months. Furthermore, he said there is no qualification process as the agency has yet to establish a State Qualification Review Board, the deadline for which was July 10.

Contracting. According to the letter, the federal agency was informed that all contracting personnel have been removed from NMEAD and transferred to the DPS, which causes delays when executing contracts before and after an event.

“It is vital that the Government of Puerto Rico possess the ability to contract for emergency work in response to a hurricane and in compliance with 2 C.F.R. Part 200 as it applies to the State entities such as [NMEAD] if the Government of Puerto Rico wishes to be reimbursed under FEMA’s public assistance program,” von Essen’s letter said. “FEMA cannot substitute for [NMEAD] here because FEMA is not in privity of contract with the recipient’s contractors. … [I]t is vital that [NMEAD] has its own procurement capability.”

Lack of emergency power and satellite communication contracts. Von Essen said FEMA supplied more than 900 generators to key facilities during Hurricane Maria; nonetheless, most of the facilities, including Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority locations, did not have any backup power or contracts in place to provide said support. Moreover, he said the local government acquired 127 federal very-small-aperture terminals (known as VSATs) believing it had a satellite service provider contract pending after acquiring the units; however, neither the contract nor an estimated award date for the service were in place.

“This equates to most public government locations on [the] island not having emergency communication capability …,” von Essen said in the letter. “According to [NMEAD]’s Communication POC, [NMEAD] is waiting for the approval from the DPS to acquire a satellite service contract.”

Inaccessibility of federal funding resources for Puerto Rico. The FEMA regional administrator stated that NMEAD does not have the authority to obligate the local government to federal cost sharing. Furthermore, he said this would be “very detrimental” if any support from the federal government were to be needed after an event.

Access to governor during response. At this point in his letter, von Essen said that during past disasters, one of the struggles that was highlighted was the need for the emergency management director to report directly to the governor for a more efficient response. Regarding that issue, he noted that the NMEAD commissioner had to report to the DPS secretary and the island secretary of State, who later reported to the governor. He “respectfully” recommended to Vázquez that NMEAD should report directly to the governor.

Emergency Management Preparedness Grant (EMPG). Von Essen said that as the government has undergone several changes in leadership, it has impacted the consistent management of the EMPG grant, which is supposed to grant support for Puerto Rico’s emergency operations. The letter pointed out that the grant supports critical preparedness and emergency operations staff.

“Currently, there is approximately $9.9 million out of $14.2 million in unspent funds for the open awards (Note: this does not include 2020 awards as still under FEMA review),” von Essen wrote. “This represents 70 percent of the total award. If this continues, the Region will recommend discussing the issuance of a possible sanction for non-performance.”

Chief of staff reacts to FEMA letter

Pabón replied via letter on Wednesday to von Essen’s message, pointing out that the island government maintains a close and continuous relationship with FEMA as a “good team.” The chief of staff said further that their “excellent communication” has led to overcoming and clearing up any worries on the part of the FEMA Region II administrator, who visited the island in June.

“As a result, for the past two weeks, we’ve had the FEMA training staff [here], who are collaborating with [NMEAD] and DPS,” Pabón said. “It is worth noting that the main concerns expressed in the New York Region’s letter are based on the [NMEAD] fusion with DSP, an agency created as a requirement from the Financial Oversight and Management Board.”

The chief of staff reiterated that communication between the local and federal governments has been constant and focused on responding to hurricanes, tropical storms and any other emergency.

“This has been evidenced by the various conference calls amid the pandemic, and on-site meetings with FEMA and [NMEAD], such as the call that the governor made to FEMA Federal Administrator Peter Gaynor, who made all resources from the agency available himself and reiterated that, in 11 months, we have recovered the federal government’s trust,” Pabón said.