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FEMA Had a Plan for Responding to a Hurricane in Puerto Rico — But It Doesn’t Want You to See It

The disaster-relief agency, under fire after Hurricane Maria, won’t release the plan, even as a comparable document for Hawaii remains public.

Army soldiers pass out food, provided by FEMA, to residents in a neighborhood without grid electricity or running water on Oct. 17, 2017, in San Isidro, Puerto Rico. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, citing unspecified “potentially sensitive information,” is declining to release a document it 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 both how well the federal government had prepared for a 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 as 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, a FEMA spokesman said he 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 must be reviewed and analyzed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by FEMA.” The statement did not explain what legal questions apply.

As ProPublica has previously reported, FEMA’s Freedom of Information process is plagued by dysfunction and yearslong backlogs. For example, FEMA hasn’t responded to a request for documents related to Superstorm Sandy that we 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 sensitive to release publicly while the Hawaii plan was not, a FEMA spokesman said: “We aren’t 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 [email protected] or via Signal at 774-826-6240.

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Portrait of Justin Elliott

Justin Elliott

Justin Elliott is a ProPublica reporter covering politics and government accountability. To securely send Justin documents or other files online, visit our SecureDrop page.

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Decca Muldowney

Decca Muldowney is a senior research fellow for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network.

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