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U.S. Senate Committee Discusses Federal Response to 2017 Hurricane Season

On October 31, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing, “Oversight of the Federal Response to the 2017 Hurricane Season.” The purpose of the hearing was to gauge the adequacy of the federal response and evaluate how it can improve.

In his written opening statement, Chairman Johnson explained: “Earlier this month, I went to Puerto Rico to assess the damage caused by Hurricane Maria. My message to the people of Puerto Rico was quite simple: No disaster response is perfect. This Committee’s duty is to help our government identify and develop ways to better prepare for and respond to these types of disasters. We must also help ensure that federal resources are directed where they are most needed, with as little waste as possible. Our goal of this hearing is to provide a forum to discuss the facts about the state of preparedness before the storms hit, the impact of the storms, the response, and next steps.”

Senator Carper (D-DE), in his opening remarks, concluded that “[w]hen extreme weather hits, it’s scary and dangerous, and it’s often far more powerful than we imagined it would be. For those of us who haven’t had the misfortune of living in the path of the worst destruction, it’s hard to imagine. But for the people whose reality has become a nightmare, they just want to know that there’s a path to a better and safer future. Clearing that path is a shared responsibility, though. The residents of Puerto Rico and their leaders must do their part, but our federal government has a moral obligation to help, as well. Like the folks at Home Depot say, ‘You can do it, we can help.’ And keeping with the spirit of the Golden Rule, let’s continue to make sure we do just that.”

The following witnesses gave their testimony and answered questions at the meeting: Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency; General Lori J. Robinson, United States Air Force, U.S. Department of Defense; Robert G. Salesses, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense Integration and Defense Support of Civil Authorities, U.S. Department of Defense; Maj. Gen. Donald E. Jackson, Deputy Commanding General for Civil and Emergency Operations, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Department of Defense; and Robert P. Kadlec, M.D., Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

FEMA Administrator Brock Long, in his prepared statement, emphasized: “At FEMA, we strongly believe in the importance of listening to our employees and external partners on how to improve our programs and the way we do business. In August of this year, we began hosting several ‘Discovery Change’ sessions to help shape our future strategic direction, brainstorm on topics covered in this testimony, and explore new ways to accomplish our mission. These sessions are my first step in a new cycle of listening to stakeholders, including agency employees, SLTT governments, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector, regarding ideas to improve the agency, our processes, and our services. During those sessions, stakeholders discussed the importance of building State-level capacity, reducing risk, streamlining and simplifying recovery, and improving FEMA’s internal processes. The agency will continue to leverage ideas from these sessions and lessons learned from the recent hurricanes and wildfires to define our strategic goals and objectives for the 2018-2022 FEMA Strategic Plan. The 2017 hurricane season has and continues to provide me the opportunity to test the validity of many of the ideas I had coming into this job. We look forward to collaborating with the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in the coming months to implement lessons learned, as well as gather any additional feedback that you may have. I look forward to your questions. Again, thank you for the opportunity to appear before the Committee today.”

The Department of Defense representatives submitted a joint statement that stated the following: “DoD is a fully committed partner in the national response system. DoD plans and is postured to support disaster and emergency response rapidly. DoD has invested in its preparedness to support the Federal Government’s response to disasters. DoD specifically pre-staging forces and resources in advance of this year’s hurricanes and employed these capabilities in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands to save and protect lives. The men and women of DoD, and DoD contractors, were ready and acted with a sense of urgency when they were needed to respond to the hurricanes. We are proud of their continuing contributions.”

Kadlec’s prepared statement mentioned the following: “Now that much of the response effort is concluding, the recovery effort will continue for years. We will continue to partner with FEMA over the next several years during this long period of recovery. We have a team who has been tracking information throughout the response for an after action report. This report will be critical to future operations. We will be building on things we performed well, and fixing areas that need improvement. The Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act (PAHPA) was designed to improve our nation’s public health and medical preparedness and response capabilities for emergencies, whether they are naturally occurring disasters, infectious disease outbreaks, or acts of terrorism. Indeed, our nation is better prepared thanks to this landmark legislation, which has brought cohesion and efficiency to the Federal public health and health response. PAHPA is due for reauthorization in 2018, and I look forward to working closely with you to move this important legislation forward. Together, we can continue to strengthen our nation’s readiness and response capabilities for 21st century health security threats.”

Present at the hearing with prepared questions to the witnesses were: Sen. Johnson (R-MN), Sen. Carper (D-DE), Sen. Tester (D-MT), Sen. Peters (D-MI), Sen. Harris (D-CA), Sen. Lankford (R-OK), Sen. Heitkamp (D-ND), Sen. Hassan (D-NH), and Sen. Daines (R-MT).

Chairman Johnson stressed that “The primary problem long-term now with Puerto Rico, and even before the disaster, was the power grid. What money we spend hopefully can be spent in a manner that we create a more resilient electrical grid that will power a vibrant economy in Puerto Rico for generations to come.” The same sentiment was expressed by the representatives present that there needs to be an assessment of the possibilities to have renewable energy and a more resilient power grid.

During the hearing, Sen. Tester asked the panel to address PREPA’s actions in managing the restoration of the power grid, to which the panel remained silent. Brock Long was asked about FEMA’s involvement in the Whitefish contract, which he answered: “The whitefish contract was not a FEMA contract. No lawyer inside FEMA would agree with the language that was in that contract.”

All of the witnesses and Senators present agreed that PREPA’s electrical grid should be rebuilt in a way to prevent future Hurricanes to cause the damage done by Maria. In the coming weeks, the Whitefish contract and PREPA’s actions will be questioned throughout the different hearings scheduled.

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