Friday - Sep 21, 2018

FEMA had a plan for responding to hurricane in Puerto Rico


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It does not want you to see it

by the El Reportero’s wire services

The disaster-relief agency, under fire after Hurricane Maria, will not release the plan, even as a comparable document for Hawaii remains public

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, citing unspecified “potentially sensitive information,” is declining to release a document drafted several years ago that details how it would respond to a major hurricane in Puerto Rico.

The plan, known as a hurricane annex, runs more than 100 pages and explains exactly what FEMA and other agencies would do in the event that a large storm struck the island. The document could help experts assess how well the federal government had prepared to storm the size of Hurricane Maria and whether FEMA’s response matches what was planned. The agency began drafting such advance plans after it was excoriated for poor performance and lack of preparation in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

ProPublica requested a copy of the Puerto Rico hurricane annex the part of its reporting on the federal response to Maria, the scale and speed of which has been the subject of scrutiny and criticism. More than a month after the storm made landfall, 73 percent of the island still lacks electricity.

Early last week, FEMA spokesman said she would provide a copy of the plan that afternoon. It never came. After a week of follow-ups, FEMA sent a statement reversing its position. “Due to the potentially sensitive information contained within the Hurricane Annex of the Region II All Hazards Plan, there are legal questions surrounding what, if any, portions of the annex can be released,” the statement said.

“As such, the documents that you seek should be reviewed and analyzed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by FEMA.” The statement did not explain what legal questions apply.

The ProPublica has previously reported, FEMA’s Freedom of Information process is plagued by dysfunction and yearslong backlogs. For example, FEMA has not responded to a request for documents related to Sandy Superstorm that we have filed more than three and a half years ago.

After FEMA declined to release the Puerto Rico hurricane plan, we found the agency’s equivalent plan for Hawaii posted, unredacted, on the internet by the Department of Defense. The Hawaii plan includes granular details down to, for example, how many specially outfitted medical aircraft the federal government would send to Hawaii after a Category 4 hurricane. It also describes an 85-step process to restore electricity on the islands.

Asked why the Puerto Rico plan was too publicly read while the Hawaii plan was not, FEMA spokesman said: “We are not able to speak for DoD or the State of Hawaii.”

Do you have information about FEMA or other agencies’ responses to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico? Contact Justin at justin@propublica.org or via Signal at 774-826-6240.

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