FEMA Acting Director R. David Paulison, whose confirmation hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, said the agency has improved from the 73 percent staffing capacity reported in a study issued last week. He said FEMA has 85 percent of the employees it needs and is en route to hiring to 95 percent by the beginning of this year's hurricane season June 1.
"We are in a very aggressive hiring mode," Paulison said.
However, measured by its own goals, FEMA is behind schedule. In a memorandum sent last month to Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, FEMA's human resources director said the agency expected to fill 95 percent of its vacancies by May 15.
"Whatever the targets are, we've not met sufficient enough employment" at the agency, Thompson said. He said he will request an update from DHS and FEMA regarding job vacancies.
Officials said the federal government has spent the last eight months creating the most comprehensive natural disaster response plan the country has ever known. DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said he expects state and local authorities to accept a larger response role in the event of a hurricane.
"We want to push the authority down," he said, more "closely to where the action is."
Paulison's announcement that FEMA will be nearly fully staffed by June 1 comes a day after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted a busy Atlantic hurricane season, with as many as 16 named storms and up to six major hurricanes that could reach Category 3 status or higher.
Reports of a strengthened national hurricane response came as welcome news for some, but a few lawmakers still argued that FEMA should be removed from DHS and returned to Cabinet-level status as an independent entity.
"DHS allowed FEMA's workforce and capabilities to deteriorate so quickly because DHS' top priority is terrorism prevention, not disaster management," said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., who co-sponsored legislation calling for the agency's independence. "To succeed, FEMA needs to be returned to the emergency management professionals and made the organization's number one priority."