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Facing hurricane and wildfire seasons, FEMA is already worn out

  • NEW YORK TIMES / 2018
                                A search and rescue team amid destroyed buildings following Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla.

    NEW YORK TIMES / 2018

    A search and rescue team amid destroyed buildings following Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla.

WASHINGTON >> Workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency have been scouting shelters for the migrant children flooding across the Southern border. They’ve been running coronavirus vaccination sites in Colorado, Massachusetts and Washington. And they are still managing the recovery from a string of record disasters starting with Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

On the cusp of what experts say will be an unusually destructive season of hurricanes and wildfires, just 3,800 of the agency’s 13,700 emergency workers are available right now to respond to a new disaster. That’s 29% fewer than were ready to deploy at the start of last year’s hurricane period, which began, as it does every year, on June 1.

FEMA has seldom been in greater demand — becoming a kind of 911 hotline for some of President Joe Biden’s most pressing policy challenges. And the men and women who have become the nation’s first responders are tired.

Deanne Criswell, Biden’s pick to run the agency, identified employee burnout as a major issue during her first all-hands FEMA meeting, according to Steve Reaves, president of the union local that represents employees.

“FEMA is like the car engine that’s been redlining since 2017 when Harvey hit,” said Brock Long, who ran the agency under former President Donald Trump and is now executive chairman of Hagerty Consulting. “It is taking a toll.”

For some categories of workers, the shortage is severe. Among the agency’s senior leadership staff, those qualified to coordinate missions in the field, just 3 out of 53 are available to deploy, the data show. Other specialized types of personnel, including operations and planning staff, have less than 15% of their workers available.

“As we prepare for hurricane and wildfire seasons, or whatever nature brings us, I am committed that FEMA employees will have the tools needed to continue our support of ongoing missions while ensuring that our deployed workforce has time to rest and train to be ready for what comes next,” Criswell said in a statement.

One problem FEMA doesn’t have is money. The federal fund that pays for its disaster work has about $50 billion on hand. It’s human resources that are in short supply.

Part of the strain reflects the large number of disaster-recovery operations that FEMA is still handling, from last year’s record-breaking 30 named storms that pummeled states like Louisiana and Texas to the wildfires that blazed through California last September. Those disasters, which take years to recover from, have translated into an escalating workload for the agency’s staff.

A growing number of employees have headed for the exits. In 2020, more FEMA workers transferred to other agencies than in any other year over the past decade — twice the typical annual number, according to federal data.

One former employee, who left FEMA for another agency in 2019 and asked not to be identified by name, worked in the office that manages outside contractors. As staff from her office were reassigned to work on disasters, they weren’t replaced. But her team’s workload wasn’t reduced, resulting in longer and longer workdays. She called it a “sweat shop.”

In interviews, current and former FEMA employees described 12-hour days, canceled vacations with their families, and not enough time to recover between assignments.

A current manager at FEMA who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press, said he has never seen staff stretched thinner.

Under Biden, FEMA’s mission has expanded drastically. Lauded for his ability to empathize with those who are suffering, Biden has increasingly deployed to crises an agency that in the past had mostly managed distribution of disaster funds to state governments.

When he traveled to storm-battered Texas in February he promised to quickly send federal support to the region — a marked difference from Trump, who threatened to withhold FEMA funding from fire-ravaged California during a spat with the state’s Democratic officials.

As he pledged to get 100 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine to Americans by his first 100 days in office, Biden enlisted FEMA to run mass vaccination sites.

To carry out that mission, the agency redirected staff. For example, moving personnel who typically managed flood insurance or disaster mitigation to vaccination centers and other coronavirus duties, the former official said.

By late April, almost 3,000 FEMA staff were working on the COVID vaccination effort as well as more than one-third of its senior managers.

The agency has been directed to assist in other efforts during the pandemic, including managing funeral assistance for Americans. When FEMA opened a call center to process requests, officials were inundated, and callers waited on hold for hours — an indicator of the agency’s struggle to manage multiple crises at the same time.

The Biden administration also in March directed FEMA to help identify shelter space for migrant children and teenagers at the southwest border, after thousands of minors were placed in detention facilities managed by the Border Patrol earlier this year.

During her confirmation hearing, Criswell, the FEMA administrator, was pressed on whether FEMA’s role in the various crises, including responding to rising crossings at the border, had put the agency at a disadvantage with hurricane and flood season approaching.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said he wanted to know “that FEMA is ready to respond to its other core mission sets.”

“FEMA’s workforce is its most valuable resource,” Criswell answered. “They’ve been responding to multiple disasters for several years now.”

In a sign that natural disasters are top of mind, the White House led an exercise Wednesday with various agencies to prepare for hurricane season, according to a senior administration official. They discussed not only emergency response but also how to invest in making communities more resilient to future storms, fires and other weather-related calamities.

The team left the exercise confident that FEMA can juggle the various emergencies and there are no immediate plans to pull it out of the effort at the border or scale back staffing at vaccination sites, the official said. Biden is also planning on visiting FEMA next week to receive a briefing on hurricane season.

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