As Tropical Storm Barry Strengthens, FEMA Is Already Stretched Thin
WASHINGTON — Three years of crushing natural disasters have left the Federal Emergency Management Agency with even fewer staff available than usual, potentially straining the agency’s ability to help victims of Tropical Storm Barry.
Less than one-quarter of FEMA’s trained disaster work force of 13,654 people is available to be deployed to Barry or any other emergency, agency documents show, with the rest either already deployed elsewhere or otherwise unavailable. That’s down from 34 percent of staff who were available at this point in 2018, and 55 percent two years ago.
“I’m worried,” said Elizabeth A. Zimmerman, who ran FEMA’s disaster operations during the Obama 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, Peter Gaynor, FEMA’s acting administrator, estimated the agency remains short by more than 2,000 people. “It has been a struggle for FEMA to make sure that we have enough disaster responders in reserve,” Mr. Gaynor 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 work force was overwhelmed,” the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office concluded after that year’s storms.
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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.
Chris Currie, who leads the accountability office’s work on emergency management, said he is worried about what would happen if FEMA were again faced with a sequence of events similar to 2017, or even a single major catastrophe. “They’re already stretched,” he said.
The increase in disasters has outpaced the agency’s efforts to bring on more people.
In a statement, FEMA spokeswoman Abigail Dennis 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. Dennis said.
The effects of a staffing shortage for 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. Zimmerman, 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 Texas in 2017, FEMA was managing 32 open major disaster declarations. Today that number is 65. And those disasters are larger than before, requiring more FEMA staff and for longer periods of time. FEMA still has about 2,400 employees working on the recovery from Hurricane Maria, the agency said. Another 650 people are still working on the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, and 1,150 on this spring’s Midwest floods.
In addition to straining FEMA’s existing work force, 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. Zimmerman said, creating a labor shortage.
“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 Steve Reaves, president of the American Federation of Government Employees’ Local 4060, which represents FEMA employees. Mr. Reaves pointed out that the government shutdown earlier this year further delayed the agency’s efforts to hire and train new staff.
“It’s insane,” he said. “Hurricanes, they don’t care if we’re short or not.”
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Christopher Flavelle covers climate adaptation, focusing on how people, governments and businesses respond to the effects of global warming. @cflav
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