WASHINGTON — It wasn’t until Wednesday, five days after President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced it was “leading the federal coordination” to the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S.
While the disaster-response agency is better known for its work in the aftermath of storms than disease outbreaks, it is the part of the federal government often charged with procuring supplies quickly. The decision to activate FEMA to its highest state, Level 1, didn’t surprise James Kendra, who directs the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware.
But Kendra did wonder if FEMA could possibly handle both a once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis and the upcoming spring flood season. The National Weather Service warned this week that flooding could affect 128 million Americans this year.
“FEMA is stretched,” he said. “All the other hazards we have in the U.S. will not go away and will only complicate the task of responding to the coronavirus.”
Problems at the agency have been mounting for years in the face of record-breaking storms, wildfires and floods that have revealed widening gaps in its abilities. A series of reports from the federal government’s General Accounting Office has shown the agency to be consistently understaffed. FEMA’s own after-action report in the wake of the 2017 hurricane season found that it had missed an internal target for what the agency calls “force strength,” the number of staff trained and ready for deployment.
The goal was to have around 12,400 personnel ready, and FEMA’s ranks at the time had fallen short by more than 1,700 people.
FEMA officials reject the idea that the agency isn’t ready. In an interview, a FEMA spokesperson said the agency’s “incident management workforce” had grown by more than 25% since Hurricane Harvey in 2017. “Additionally, FEMA hired more than 1,500 temporary local hires to support response and recovery missions in their communities,” said the spokesperson, who asked to be unnamed as a matter of departmental policy.
By its own count, however, FEMA remains below its 2017 target for force strength. There are now around 11,000 personnel at the ready, FEMA said, about 1,400 short. Right now, the spokesperson said, only 35% of its employees are currently available to deploy, although more could be freed up as necessary.
The consequences of missing staffing targets became apparent after the particularly severe storm season of 2017. That was the year Hurricane Maria devastated the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico and caused 2,975 deaths, according to a study by the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. FEMA proved unprepared in both supplies and personnel. The after-action report released by FEMA the following year acknowledged that the agency had “placed staff in positions beyond their experiences and, in some instance, beyond their capabilities.”
FEMA’s preparedness now will depend on whether or not it needs to deploy large numbers of personnel to states to manage the COVID-19 crisis, said Chris Currie, GAO’s director in charge of reviewing emergency-management services. FEMA has the ability to do surge staffing — pulling in workers from other federal agencies and expanding its ranks through contractors — but it’s not yet clear if that will be used.
Regardless, Currie said it would be challenging for FEMA to balance all the new work from the pandemic with its already heavy load. “They presently have about 600 declared federal disasters, both major and minor, where they are still assisting with long-term recovery,” he said. “They have 2,000 people still in Puerto Rico.”
The FEMA spokesperson said the agency has cut the number of major disasters whose long-term recovery it is managing, from 60 two years ago to 43 at the time of the pandemic. The agency also emphasizes that its role is not to respond first, but rather to organize and support state and local response efforts. “It’s not just FEMA — it’s a whole team effort,” the spokesperson said. “Like all emergencies, response is most successful when it is locally executed, state managed, and federally supported. But it starts with individual preparedness.”
Brock Long, who led FEMA for the first two years of the Trump administration, said he thinks the agency had been made stronger by the trials of 2017. “This is the most battle-hardened FEMA staff ever,” he said in an interview. “They are tired. It is not ideal by any means. But they do have the skill set and availability.” Long resigned in early 2019, after enduring criticism from lawmakers over the agency’s response to Hurricane Maria.
Long’s deputy at the time, Peter Gaynor, assumed the role of FEMA acting director for nine months until he was approved by the Senate in January. Prior to joining FEMA, Gaynor served as a well-regarded emergency manager in Rhode Island, holding both local and state-level positions. In his nearly four-year tenure as Rhode Island’s chief emergency officer, he faced only one event that reached FEMA disaster level: a snowstorm in January 2015.
At his confirmation hearing in November, Gaynor acknowledged that the U.S. was experiencing more frequent and intense storms but did not attribute the increase to global warming; he demurred by saying he’s “not a scientist.” Asked directly whether he thought climate change was real, Gaynor answered: “The climate has changed. I cannot attribute the scientific reasons why.”
As acting administrator in April 2019, Gaynor went before a U.S. House subcommittee to defend the Trump administration’s request to cut FEMA’s overall budget by 8.5%. Gaynor batted away lawmakers’ concerns that his agency would be unprepared should multiple disasters occur at once. “A bigger FEMA is not the answer,” he said. “We need to be a smarter FEMA when we deal with disasters and how we source our staff.”
The response to the pandemic will be an extraordinary test for a disaster-response agency with fewer resources. “It’s a very unique situation when you have to help people but not get within six feet of them,” said Tim Frazier, director of Georgetown University’s emergency and disaster management program. “Stretching the resources has more to do with people power. FEMA doesn’t have an unlimited supply of human capital.”
Even before the novel coronavirus reached the U.S., this year was already shaping up to be exceptionally challenging for FEMA. Relentless rains across the Southeast in February caused near-record flooding from Jackson, Miss., to Birmingham, Ala. In early March, roughly 10 tornadoes touched down in Tennessee, leaving at least 25 dead.
Scientists have tied extreme weather such as unusually heavy precipitation to warming temperatures, and these floods and tornadoes are just the start of the looming risks. Flood seasons is around the corner, and tornadoes usually peak in April. Atlantic hurricane season begins in June 1. “We have a saying that hope is never a good strategy,” Frazier said. “But at the same time, we have to hope we don’t get a hurricane, we don’t get a tsunami somewhere. Let’s hope we don’t have the flooding in the Midwest.”