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Far more people died from Hurricane Maria than Katrina, but the House and Senate have asked fewer questions.
After Hurricane Katrina crashed into the Gulf Coast in 2005, Congress sprang into action.
Seventeen days after the storm made landfall, the Republican-led House created a bipartisan select committee to investigate the Bush administration’s response to the storm. In the Senate, the committee with oversight over the Federal Emergency Management Agency held 22 hearings in six months. Within eight months, both committees had released 500-plus-page investigations into the Bush administration’s handling of the crisis with dozens of recommendations for reform.
In the year since Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, killing nearly 70 percent more people than Katrina, the GOP-led House has yet to create a select committee to oversee the Trump administration’s recovery efforts. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees FEMA, has held just two hearings related to the storm. Neither the House nor the Senate have issued any major reports, and none appear to be in the works.
The lack of congressional oversight is especially striking since serious questions remain unanswered about a hurricane that killed an estimated 2,975 people, according to researchers at George Washington University. President Donald Trump falsely claimed last week that the death count was inflated as part of a partisan Democratic attack. But with only limited oversight from Congress, disaster experts contend, it is difficult to hold officials accountable for delayed responses last year, to help FEMA learn from its mistakes or to provide a documented accounting of what happened in order to refute claims like the one in Trump’s tweet.
“Puerto Rico is getting far less attention, in spite of it being one of the worst disasters in modern American history, than Katrina and far less attention than we got for Superstorm Sandy,” said Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. “From the beginning, the handling of Maria’s consequences both from the White House and Congress has been abysmally inadequate.”
After being slow to demand further oversight from congressional leaders,Democrats are now sharply criticizing Republicans for failing to act, calling for an independent commission to investigate the storm and promising to open a new investigation if they win back the House in November. They say that Republicans are providing political cover for Trump, whose response to the Puerto Rican disaster was slower than his efforts to clean up damage from Hurricane Harvey in Texas just a month earlier.
Republicans reject the criticism that they have not fully investigated the storm. They point to hearings across different committees, congressional trips to Puerto Rico and thousands of documents reviewed by congressional staff. The House has also twice passed bills aimed at helping FEMA to better prepare for future disasters.
“[The committees] have conducted rigorous oversight of the U.S. government’s response following the storms including holding full committee and subcommittee hearings, a field hearing, and bipartisan briefings,” said AshLee Strong, press secretary for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) “This work is not over as we continue to conduct oversight including Congressional requests of the Government Accountability Office and forthcoming review of the Inspector General’s audit.”
Nonetheless, a two-month POLITICO review of Congress’ actions after Katrina and Maria found that the House and Senate acted far more aggressively in the year after Katrina than in the past year after Maria.
Soon after Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, House GOP leaders called for an investigation and created a select committee to investigate the storm. Democrats, in fact, voted almost unanimously against the creation of the committee, arguing that Republicans, who would lead the committee, would use it to whitewash the Bush administration’s response to the storm. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told Democrats to boycott the committee altogether, but representatives from the Gulf states participated anyway, believing that the committee, despite its makeup, was the best chance to get information out of the administration.
Former Rep. Charlie Melancon of Louisiana, the ranking Democrat on the committee, recalled that he didn’t remember the committee accomplishing much. “In my mind, it was to make it look like Congress or GOP leadership was doing something,” he said.
Still, the committee held nine public hearings and reviewed more than 500,000 pages of documents, according to the 582-page report, titled “A Failure of Initiative,” that was released less than six months after Katrina. It provided an avenue for Democrats to keep pressure on the administration to hand over documents related to the storm and make officials available for interviews.
“The mere fact that there was a bipartisan select committee appointed by the speaker is pretty profound in light of what we’re seeing with Puerto Rico now,” said Casey O’Shea, a former chief of staff to Melancon who is now serving as a senior adviser to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “In Katrina, we always said that an unprecedented catastrophe deserves an unprecedented response. That was our mantra. With Maria, what we’re seeing with Puerto Rico is anything but that.”
Former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who chaired the committee, defended its work, arguing that it was ultimately critical of the administration. “We were very serious about it,” he said.
Across the Capitol, the Senate conducted its own investigation into the Bush administration’s response to Katrina through the Senate government affairs committee. Over six months, the committee held 22 hearings with 85 witnesses, reviewed over 838,000 pages of documents and interviewed 325 people involved in the response. Many of the hearings focused on narrow issues, such as search-and-rescue efforts after the storm, and the committee produced its own 737-page report, titled “A Nation Still Unprepared.”
“We really did devote a lot of time to it,” said former Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who was the top Democrat on the committee. “We went down to the Gulf Coast a couple times. As a result, the media followed us, certainly to the Gulf Coast area but more broadly. That meant it was harder for the executive branch to ignore us.”
Unlike in 2005 and 2006, oversight after Maria has been split among a number of different committees, which critics say dilutes the impact of any individual probe.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has held two hearings—both subcommittee, not full committee hearings—related to the 2017 hurricane season, reviewed more than 17,000 documents and held multiple briefings for committee members. The Transportation committee has held four hearings on the 2017 hurricanes, as well as a roundtable discussion, and it has had briefings for staff and meetings with agency officials. The Energy and Commerce Committee and Committee on Natural Resources have each held four hearings, while the Homeland Security Committee has held two hearings.
Democrats remain critical of the oversight. On Sept. 6, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Oversight committee, released a reportcomplaining about a lack of hearings and criticizing the committee chairman, Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, for refusing to request documents from the administration, including communications between FEMA and Department of Homeland Security leaders.
“It’s not that Democrats aren’t doing anything,” said a senior Democratic aide. “It’s just that Democrats don’t control the gavels. We can’t call up administration witnesses each week.”
The same day that Democrats released their report, Gowdy sent a letter to FEMA requesting all communications from 13 FEMA officials related to 10 different aspects of the agency’s response to the storm, including the lack of qualified personnel, wiring issues with the electrical system and problems with existing disaster plans. It was just the second letter requesting information about FEMA sent by the committee and the first since Oct. 11, 2017.
Amanda Gonzalez, communications director for the Oversight committee, defended its work, noting that the committee has been in touch with FEMA on a “near-weekly” basis. The committee also intends to reschedule a hearing, originally scheduled for Sept. 7, with FEMA Administrator Brock Long, which was postponed as a result of Hurricane Florence.
In the Senate, oversight has come largely from the Government Affairs Committee and Energy and Natural Resources Committee, each of which has held two hearings into the storm. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, visited Puerto Rico in November, while Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the chairman of the Oversight Committee, visited the island last October.
Republicans also point to the Disaster Recovery Reform Act as a major reform effort resulting from the 2017 hurricane season. The legislation, which includes many changes designed to help communities better prepare for a major disaster, was introduced in the House last November and has passed the lower chamber twice. Johnson, along with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), the ranking member of the committee, introduced similar legislation in June. The full Senate has yet to take it up.
While many disaster recovery experts are optimistic about those reforms, they remain critical of the lack of oversight after Maria and said it’s a missed opportunity to learn lessons from the storm. In the House, the disparate nature of the oversight meant no single committee has been looking comprehensively at the response. The piecemeal approach, they said, reduces attention toward the government’s response, lessening the pressure on the Trump administration and resulting in important issues falling through the cracks.
It’s also resulted in the administration turning over far fewer documents to Congress. The Oversight Committee has reviewed roughly 17,000 documents related to the storms, compared with more than 500,000 documents reviewed by the Katrina select committee. Other committees did not respond to questions about how many documents they have reviewed related to the 2017 hurricane season.
Meanwhile, the Senate has barely investigated the storms at all. Johnson, for instance, hasn’t sent a single letter to FEMA requesting documents or further information about the administration’s response to the storm, according to the committee’s website.
Ben Voelkel, communications director for the committee, defended its response: “The chairman and his staff continue to conduct oversight and push forward legislation to enhance our nation’s response to and recovery from disasters.”
A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Disaster-recovery specialists portrayed the Senate’s response as lackluster and its failure to hold hearings a missed opportunity.
“A lot of times, there’s a lot of lessons learned that can come out of those hearings,” said Michael Coen, who was chief of staff at FEMA during the Obama administration. “They aren’t going to find anything if they didn’t look.”
Davis, the former chairman of the Katrina select committee, said that increased partisanship has made it harder for Congress to conduct oversight as any findings become political fodder for the other side. He declined to comment on whether Congress should create a select committee to investigate the administration’s response to Hurricane Maria, saying it was “leadership’s choice” but said select committees can work well if you get “serious members and take partisanship out of it.”
He added, “But it’s hard to get there these days. Everyone gets caught up in elections. We need to get back to that and get some good answers and let the chips fall where they may.”
Democrats have introduced legislation in the House and Senate to set up an independent commission to investigate the response to the storms. Lieberman, who co-authored legislation with the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that created a similar commission after 9/11, said such commissions can work well and worried that it becomes harder to conduct such oversight as time goes by.
“People in Puerto Rico really suffered, and there is a need for a full-fledged investigation soon or else all the evidence will get stale,” Lieberman said.
For Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, one big problem, experts said, is a lack of representation in Congress. As territories, they each have one nonvoting representative in the House and no senators. That makes it even harder to pressure congressional leaders to investigate the storms.
“It feels like Maria is kind of a peripheral issue,” said the senior Democratic aide. “It’s an island in the Caribbean in that most people don’t think about regularly and that’s just the disaster of having a disaster in Puerto Rico.”
The aide added that Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló did not help his own cause when he refused to criticize the Trump administration’s response in the first few weeks after the storm. “He tried to play both sides in this. He tried to cozy up to the Trump administration, play to Trump’s ego, say everything is good. But when he talked to congressional Democrats, he said we really are getting screwed here.”
“I do think he has a point in playing it that way,” the aide added, “[but] it took the wind out of the sails for oversight.”
Redlener, the disaster management expert at Columbia, agreed that a select committee would be helpful to conduct oversight into the storm. But he said that Congress needs to go further a create a permanent select committee charged with investigating the government’s response to natural disasters, from hurricanes to wildfires.
“It goes beyond getting information and headlines but what is the enduring agenda that helps make sure the lessons are absorbed properly, learned and applied,” he said. “There’s the experience of the disaster and those experiences should be learned as lessons. But if we don’t apply those lessons from the last disasters, we’ll be left with repeating the same mistakes over and over again.”
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