WASHINGTON — The Federal Emergency Management Agency was stretched thin and overwhelmed in 2017 by the sequence of major hurricanes and wildfires that caused disasters across the country, according to a massive Government Accountability Office “performance audit” released Tuesday.

The GAO report concludes that FEMA generally carried out its duties as expected when responding within the continental United States – to hurricanes Harvey and Irma and the California wildfires – but it found that FEMA was not ready for what Hurricane Maria did to Puerto Rico.

“They were completely overwhelmed from a workforce standpoint,” Chris Currie, the GAO director for emergency management issues and leader of the audit, said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

Some of the FEMA staff deployed to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands “were not physically able to handle the extreme or austere environment of the territories, which detracted from mission needs,” the report said. FEMA officials told the auditors that “the physical fitness of staff could be assessed” before future deployments.

At one point last October – as FEMA struggled to respond to multiple disasters – 54 percent of FEMA’s deployed workers were forced to perform tasks for which they did not meet the agency’s standard of “qualified,” the report states. And many staffers couldn’t speak Spanish, something that hindered efforts in Puerto Rico: “FEMA did not have enough bilingual employees to communicate with local residents or translate documents.”


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