WASHINGTON — In a rare move, the government watchdog for the Federal Emergency Management Agency has removed a dozen largely positive reports evaluating how the agency responded under President Obama to several disasters from 2012 to 2016, according to an internal memo obtained by USA TODAY.
The 12 reports were rescinded by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General because they "may have not adequately answered objectives and, in some cases, may have lacked sufficient and appropriate evidence to support conclusions," read the internal memo issued Thursday. "In an abundance of caution, we believe it best to recall the reports and not re-issue them."
The reports being removed include initial assessments of FEMA's responseto several disasters including two reports in 2013 on Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast, a 2014 report on storms and tornadoes in Oklahoma, and a 2016 report on severe wildfires in California.
All of them praised the agency, using words such as "effective" and "efficient" to characterize the agency's immediate response to major calamities. Typical of language used inthese reports, the Inspector General commended FEMA's response to the storms and flooding that hammered South Carolina in 2015.
"FEMA completed all Preliminary Damage Assessments approximately two weeks after the declaration; overcame pressing challenges and sourcing decisions; and effectively coordinated its activities with Federal, State, and local partners," according tothe IG report issued March 21, 2016.
FEMA is a division of the Homeland Security Department.
Nine of the 12 reports were signed by John V. Kelly, who headed the division in the DHS Inspector General's office responsibility for overseeing FEMA. Kelly is now the acting Inspector General.
Arlen Morales, a spokeswoman for the DHS Inspector General, confirmed the decision to remove the reports.
"At DHS OIG, we hold ourselves to the highest standards for our important work conducting oversight on behalf of American taxpayers," she said in an email. "It has come to our attention that we may have failed to meet these standards in some of our reports evaluating FEMA’s initial response to several disasters."
Morales did not respond to an email asking how the substandard reports were brought the attention of the IG or whether their removal implies that FEMA's response to these disasters was poor.
Craig Fugate, FEMA administrator during the Obama presidency, said it was "curious" that the reports were being pulled from the website.
'"For the life of me, I have no idea why they're rescinding them. I guess the Obama administration didn't do anything right then," he said tongue-in-cheek.
Morales said the Inspector General has developed a new approach designed to provide real-time feedback to FEMA as the agency handles an ongoing emergency.
"Rather than attempting to publish traditional audit reports conducted under Government Auditing Standards, we will issue alerts to FEMA regarding problems or issues that we have observed in the field," she said. "We will also continue to identify potential risk areas to be addressed by future traditional audits."
The approach has been used in recent audits of disasters, including Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and last year’s California wildfires, she said.
Fugate said that could be more beneficial than the after-the-fact "punitive reports" the IG often issues in the wake of a disaster.
"If they're moving to where (they give FEMA) a chance to address those as they see them, particular in the disaster environments, that would be helpful," he said.