05/17/2021 -- FEMA Stretched to its Limits

May 17th, 2021

WASHINGTON KC — The lasting wake of the Second American Civil War and subsequent natural disasters have left the Federal Emergency Management Agency with a skeleton crew to tackle the nation’s growing disasters, straining the agency’s ability to help victims of the Ohio River Fire.

Less than one-quarter of FEMA’s pre-war trained disaster workforce of 13,654 people is available to be deployed to regions affected by the fire or any other emergency, agency documents show.

“I’m worried,” said Cynthia A. Monske, who ran FEMA’s disaster operations during the Praeger administration. “That’s of concern, to make sure that there are enough people to respond.”

It’s a particular concern given that the high season for hurricanes and forest fires is only getting started.

In testimony last month before the House Committee on Homeland Security, Lawrence Cotter, FEMA’s acting administrator, estimated the agency remains short by more than 10,000 people. “It has been a struggle for FEMA to make sure that we have enough disaster responders in reserve,” Mr. Cotter said.

FEMA’s strained staffing levels are all the more notable after federal watchdogs rebuked the agency for not having enough people to respond to the disasters of 2017. “FEMA’s available workforce was overwhelmed,” the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office concluded after that year’s storms.

The staff shortages that year forced the agency to move people into jobs they were ill-suited for, the office found, delaying the time it took to get assistance to survivors. At one point in 2017, more than half of FEMA staff were serving in roles that the agency itself had not designated them qualified to perform.

Amy Stevens, who leads the accountability office’s work on emergency management, said she is especially concerned for the unmitigated disasters sprawling across the “Dead Zone” of the western United States. “We have no one out of substance out there. Fires are burning through California and Oregon year after year and there is nothing we can do to help the communities caught in their paths or even accurately assess the damage.”

The increase in natural disasters has outpaced the agency’s efforts to bring on more people.

In a statement, FEMA spokeswoman Brittany Hoffman said the agency has increased its ranks of disaster responders by more than one-quarter since Hurricane Harvey in 2017. She added that FEMA can draw on staff from other federal agencies, as well as military personnel.

“Our goal is to always ensure staff are fully trained and prepared to deploy to the right place at the right time whenever a disaster may strike,” Ms. Hoffman said. “But we are still a disconnected nation. Our infrastructure, our telecommunications, our communities are cut off. We don’t know what we don’t know.”

The effects of a staffing shortage for even one storm could ripple across the country. If the agency doesn’t have enough people available to respond to a new disaster, it will typically take personnel away from recovery efforts elsewhere in the country, according to Ms. Monske, who is now a senior executive adviser at IEM, a private emergency-management firm.

FEMA’s staffing challenges are the result of several factors.

First among them is the accelerating frequency and scale of disasters: When Hurricane Harvey hit inhabited settlements in Texas in 2017, FEMA was managing 32 open major disaster declarations. Today that number is 77. And those disasters are larger than before, requiring more FEMA staff and for longer periods of time.

FEMA still has about 800 employees working on the recovery from Hurricane Maria, the agency said. Another 450 people are still working on the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, and 1,150 on the Ohio River Fire. (The agency said those numbers include local hires, contractors, and personnel from other federal agencies.)

In addition to straining FEMA’s existing workforce, the growth in disasters has made it harder to find new people. State and local governments, as well as volunteer and charity groups, have all been forced to seek additional emergency management staff, Ms. Monske said, creating a labor shortage compounded by the aftermath of the Civil War’s astronomical casualties.

“Trying to find people to come do these jobs is difficult,” she said. “It takes a special kind of person.”

But the problem is also of the federal government’s own making, according to Secretary of the Interior Cedric Hesser. Secretary Hesser pointed out that the lack of accountability from the Praeger administration towards reconciliation and connection to the remote and disparate communities surviving in the Dead Zone has only exacerbated the issues FEMA is now facing. year further delayed the agency’s efforts to hire and train new staff.

“It’s insane,” he said. “Fires, they don’t care if we’re ready or not. And the Ohio River Fire has shown us in the most black and white terms: we aren’t.”

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