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Muddled Roles, Missing First Aid Kits Fouled EPA Hurricane Response (1)

Dec. 11, 2018, 5:48 PMUpdated: Dec. 11, 2018, 8:53 PM

EPA staff responding to hurricanes and wildfires in 2017 were delayed by federal agencies’ confusion over their roles, and ran out of first aid kits, bottled water and other supplies, according to an internal report obtained by Bloomberg Environment Dec. 11.

The Environmental Protection Agency evaluated its responses to Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma, as well as wildfires in California last year. President Donald Trump called the government’s response to Hurricane Maria an “incredible, unsung success” in a White House briefing Sept. 11.

But the EPA report, dated September 2018 and obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, details how some staff were adequately prepared, but others were left without adequate supplies or direction.

“Some of these issues are just challenges when you’re mobilizing a whole lot of people on short notice,” George O. Wilkinson, partner at Vinson & Elkins LLP in Houston, Texas, told Bloomberg Environment. Wilkinson counsels companies dealing with emergencies such as spills, explosions, and pipeline ruptures.

The agency indicated in the report it is working to rectify some of its identified weaknesses. The EPA didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg Environment’s email seeking comment.

‘Coordination Challenges’

In all four disasters, the agency’s regional offices “experienced coordination challenges” with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Coast Guard. They scrambled to define their roles in addressing drinking water systems, managing hazardous material spills, and conducting assessments for asbestos.

In the report, the agency’s Office of Emergency Management recommended that the EPA “ensure a common understanding of roles and clarity” with those agencies for future emergency responses.

The EPA came under harsh criticism from some Democrats after the disasters.

“Communities were suffering even before the wildfires and hurricanes. These disasters made a bad environmental crisis even worse,” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), said at a December 2017 hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s panel on regulatory oversight.

The report shows the agency is becoming more organized in its response to disasters, which is good because more of them will occur in the future, Cliff Villa, associate law professor at the University of New Mexico and former on-call legal counsel for EPA Region 10’s emergency response program, told Bloomberg Environment.

“These are the climate-change consequences that we feared 20 to 30 years ago, and it’s not going to get better,” he said. “Maybe we get a break in 2019, but we won’t get a break for very long.”

Hurricane Maria

“Several responders” from the agency’s Region 2 office said they had a shortage of safety supplies after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in September 2017.

They were short on first aid kits, bottled water, hard hats, safety vests, work boots, emergency response shirts, and tire repair products. But most responders felt that they had adequate field safety training, according to the report.

In one case, a Spanish-speaking emergency responder from Puerto Rico, who had experience in drinking water and wastewater, wasn’t allowed to deploy to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Instead, the agency sent the individual, who was prepared to respond to the hurricane, to the wildfires in California.

“This raised concerns that personnel deployments were not sensitive of particular skill sets and cultural backgrounds,” the report stated.

The Category 4 hurricane wiped out the island’s fragile electricity system. It took nearly 11 months for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to return power to all of its residential customers.

About 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico in the months after Hurricane Maria, according to a George Washington University report.

Hurricane Harvey

The EPA’s community liaisons—staff assigned to communicate with local officials and citizen groups—didn’t arrive in Corpus Christi, Texas, until two weeks after Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Aug. 25, 2017.

Information about how local residents could prevent mold “arrived too late to be useful,” according to the report.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency had reserved hotel rooms for affected residents, leaving the EPA’s regional staff to use trailers. Some contractors used the regional staff’s trailers because they were not authorized to reserve hotel rooms, according to the report.

Several people who responded to the Office of Emergency Management’s post-disaster survey said translators who could speak Vietnamese and Spanish weren’t available or not available soon enough. Some Vietnamese materials on the agency’s website were “poorly translated.”

For the Houston area, recovery could take years of infrastructure improvements like drainage and flood control, Wilkinson said.

“It’s difficult to say that the Houston area is going to be prepared for any kind of future hurricane based on one year of response activities,” he said.

Before the next hurricane season starts, the EPA will need “more training for people who don’t think they’ll ever be deployed,” Villa said, “but need to be ready.”

And some staff, such as accountants who might not report to a disaster area, need to be prepared to support those in emergency response roles, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sylvia Carignan in Washington at scarignan@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Andrew Childers at achilders@bloombergenvironment.com; Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergenvironment.com