Trump

President Donald Trump, left, listens as FEMA Administrator Brock Long, center, talks about Hurricane Florence in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018, as Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen listens at right. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

By its own admission in a report this summer, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was understaffed, under-trained and ill-prepared for last year's hurricane season.

But South Carolina politicians said they have faith FEMA will improve its performance as Hurricane Florence spins toward the Carolinas.

"Generally, it's the losing football team that studies game day tapes more than the team that wins," said U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Charleston. "I think it makes them that much more sensitive to getting it right in this hurricane season."

FEMA came under fire last year for its response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where an estimated 3,000 people died in the six months after the storm pummeled the island, according to updated death tolls researchers released last month.

The agency's response to Maria was widely criticized, as many residents in the U.S. territory went without power, food and water relief for months. That comes as President Donald Trump has refused to view FEMA's Maria response as anything but positive, instead finding fault with the mayor of San Juan and other local officials. 

Speaking in the Oval Office on Wednesday on Hurricane Florence, Trump called FEMA and law enforcement's response to Maria "tremendous" and "an incredible unsung success."

Sanford, who as governor led South Carolina through Hurricanes Charlie and Gaston, called FEMA's 2017 Maria reaction "a fiasco" but was optimistic Wednesday that lessons were learned.

After visiting the Emergency Operations Center in Charleston, Sanford noted FEMA is already on the ground in South Carolina, and that's proof the federal agency is prepared.

U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, R-Myrtle Beach, whose congressional district is predicted to be hardest hit in South Carolina, affirmed his belief in FEMA.

"FEMA and other emergency management are continually improving preparedness, emergency coordination, and relief efforts," Rice said in a statement. "As we have done after every natural disaster, my office will with work with FEMA and other relevant agencies to ensure both the immediate and long-term disaster recovery needs of my constituents are met."

Despite spending millions of dollars during recent hurricanes, including Harvey, Irma and Maria, FEMA said Wednesday that the agency still has what it needs as Hurricane Florence barrels toward the Carolinas.

"We have plenty of resources, both monetary, staff and commodities to respond to the dangerous storm that is Hurricane Florence," said Jeff Byard, FEMA's associate administrator for response and recovery.

FEMA's Wednesday news conference came on the heels of budget documents released by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., purporting to show that the Trump administration diverted almost $10 million from the agency to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement for detention facilities.

But Tyler Houlton, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said that money was transferred from FEMA's routine operating expenses and would not affect its disaster relief efforts. The transfer amounted to less than 1 percent of FEMA's budget.

After the 2017 hurricane season, FEMA admitted that it was unprepared and understaffed to react proportionately to the devastating storms that ravaged several areas around the U.S., with particular difficulty in Puerto Rico.

The official death toll in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria has risen to 2,975, and unofficial estimates place the number even higher.

According to FEMA's after-action report, nearly 5 million people ended up registering for FEMA assistance last year, more than the four previous major hurricanes combined.

The agency said it was implementing procedures to be better prepared for 2018, including increases of supplies and staffing.

“We are prepared for the 2018 hurricane season and have already applied lessons learned from last year to improve how we as an emergency management community do business," said FEMA Administrator Brock Long. 

FEMA has started a "rumor control" page on its website for Hurricane Florence, addressing frequently asked questions or common misconceptions about how to respond to the storm.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina statehouse and congressional delegation. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.