The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s internal watchdog produced 13 now-retracted “feel good” reports about how FEMA’s emergency management oversight team responded to natural disasters in an effort to “downplay all the negatives,” according to an internal report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General office.
A DHS OIG internal review of the reports produced between 2012 and 2016 found that a shift in how emergency management operation team reports were conducted and direction from leadership within the office writing the reports caused employees to put positive spins on their reports.
The review, which was first reported on by the Washington Post, shows how changes within the FEMA Inspector General’s office shifted the reports from being a thorough review designed to improve FEMA’s emergency response to being overwhelmingly positive, no matter the reality of FEMA’s response to the situation. Here are a few key lines from the report that show how that shift happened:
Hurricane Issac 2012 report - ‘downplay all the negatives’
The shift in the emergency management reports started with Hurricane Isaac in 2012. The team initially planned to report on several issues with FEMA’s response, “Senior Employee 1” who directed much of the emergency management review work told the staffers that Acting Inspector General John Kelly wanted to “downplay all the negatives,” and wanted the report to be “positive with no recommendations,” the review report states. The staffers changed the report accordingly.
The four elements of a ‘feel good’ report
The office developed a formula for creating positive reports about FEMA’s response to disasters. They always included four key elements: the conclusion of the report would state that FEMA’s response was “effective and efficient,” the report didn’t include recommendations, any noted challenges would also include how FEMA overcame them and negative information would be spun off into a separate report.
Kelly had an ‘overwhelmingly positive’ view of FEMA’s emergency management teams
Kelly’s positive view of FEMA’s emergency response trickled down. He once told an employee set to deploy to a disaster that the employee would see “FEMA at her best.”
Kelly became the DHS acting IG in 2013 and was the deputy IG starting in 2012. All of the reports that were retracted by the DHS IG were produced between 2012 and 2016 under Kelly’s leadership. Kelly recused himself from the DHS IG’s review of what happened with these reports and will continue in his role until a new inspector general is confirmed by the Senate, according to a DHS OIG spokesperson.
Senior Employe 1
Senior Employee 1 shared Kelly’s positive view of FEMA’s emergency response team and was “particularly impressed with FEMA’s dedication and work ethic in responding to disasters,” the report states. Senior Employee 1 also shared that view with staff.
Negative information went in ‘spinoff reports’
Kelly decided that if systemic issues were identified in the reports, that information would not go in the initial report but instead in “separate ‘spinoff’ reports on the those issues.” When DHS OIG officials asked Kelly why he made this decision, Kelly said he thought it would be better to issue clean reports, the review report states.
Hurricane Sandy reports - ‘it would be better if all three reports were similar’
While the 2012 Hurricane Isaac report was being drafted, two other teams in New York and New Jersey were evaluating FEMA’s response to Hurricane Sandy. Senior Employee 1 sent the teams the draft Isaac report, stating since FEMA’s initial response was “generally good… it would be better if all three reports were similar.”
’Flawed report model’
The model continued to influence future reports up until the report about FEMA’s response to extreme flooding in Louisiana in 2017 when a congressional committee started asking questions. The internal review found that these positive reports were produced because of a “flawed report model,” and “deficiencies” in “internal controls” like management and supervisory oversight.
After the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee raised concerns about a DHS OIG Louisiana flooding report in 2017, the office conducted a review of the report and found it didn’t meet their internal audit standards. The report claimed that FEMA’s emergency response was “effective and efficient,” but it didn’t include evidence to support that conclusion, the review report states.
After reviewing the Louisiana report, DHS OIG found 12 similar reports also concluded that FEMA’s emergency response to disasters over a five-year period was effective and efficient without providing evidence to support those conclusions.
The Louisiana report was retracted in July 2017. The other 12 reports were retracted by the DHS OIG in March 2018.