Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long said Tuesday that some parts of the overall response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico were not present, but his team did a "phenomenal job" despite harsh criticisms the agency received.
Speaking at a US Chamber of Commerce Foundation event in Washington, DC, Long talked about the four "legs" that support an emergency management response during a natural disaster: federal government, state and local government, the private sector and the citizens.
In Puerto Rico, Long said that not all four of those legs were present.
"Going into other areas, like Puerto Rico, there was only one leg that was present and that's the fact, and that's the reality," Long said. "That's not a complaint, but it's what we've got to overcome in lessons learned from 2017 and going forward. We've got to figure out how to build better baseline capabilities at all levels of government."
Long did not specify which leg he thought was present in the response in Puerto Rico or which legs he thought were missing.
Long's comments come almost two weeks after FEMA released an after-action report about the 2017 hurricane season. In the report, the agency stated that the hurricane season "stretched response capabilities at all levels of government."
Despite acknowledging the failures in Puerto Rico, Long stood up for his agency's overall response to natural disasters in 2017, stating, "I could care less what the media says or what anybody else says. My team did a phenomenal job."
The official death toll from Hurricane Maria and its aftermath, according to the Puerto Rican government, was 64, but CNN reported in May that an academic report in the New England Journal of Medicine put the number of deaths at 4,645.
The study, which was conducted by researchers from Harvard University and other institutions, surveyed 3,299 randomly chosen households on the island earlier in 2018. The researchers compared the results of that survey, asking about deaths in the homes of island residents, with official mortality statistics from 2016. Researchers then estimated the number of deaths that likely occurred as a result of Maria between the storm and the end of 2017.
FEMA's after-action report on the 2017 hurricane season, released July 12, referenced Puerto Rico 130 times and noted that "the fatality count from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was being reviewed by the government of Puerto Rico at the time of this report."
Long said that aside from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, the agency responded to a new event "every three days" in 2017.
Looking ahead, Long referenced a strategic plan the administration has developed to improve disaster response. He also stressed the importance of pre-disaster mitigation moving into the 2018 hurricane season.
"We are all pushing for pre-disaster mitigation to be up front because it's a regressive approach in this country to where a community has got to get hit to have access to millions of dollars of mitigation funding," Long said while moderating a panel of three CEOs discussing private sector involvement in emergency responses to natural disasters.