Hurricane Dorian sits over the Atlantic ocean on Sunday.

Hurricane Dorian sits over the Atlantic ocean on Sunday. NOAA via AP

FEMA Officials Confident About Dorian Response Despite Shortage of 2,000 Reserve Workers

The agency has deployed roughly 1,500 employees to prepare for the hurricane’s possible landfall.

As the Southeast coast braces for Hurricane Dorian, the acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency has acknowledged a shortage of about 2,000 reserve employees. 

Pete Gaynor, who has been leading FEMA in an acting capacity following former administrator Brock Long’s resignation in February in the wake of several controversies, confirmed on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday that FEMA is still more than 2,000 employees short in its “incident workforce,” a reserve of employees who help on the ground before, during and after disasters, but do not work for FEMA year-round. 

“Within the reservist corps, you might have IT people, HR people, you might have emergency managers, you might have people that specialize in grants,” said Chris Currie, director of the Government Accountability Office’s Homeland Security and Justice Team. FEMA has “struggled to maintain, particularly within certain ... groups in the reservist corps, full-staffing numbers.” This includes the public assistance group, which helps remove debris and restore publicly owned facilities.   

Gaynor said FEMA is working to address the shortage of reservists and the agency is “more than ready to deal with anything that Dorian delivers us this year or any other storm.”

He first testified about the gap during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing in June. The Government Accountability Office also reported in June that FEMA is still struggling with staff vacancies, turnover, delays in training and issues deploying staff with the appropriate skills to disasters. 

“Since Hurricane Harvey made landfall two years ago, FEMA has grown its incident management workforce by more than 25%,” a FEMA spokesperson told Government Executive. “FEMA maintains contracts, mission assignments and other staffing augmentation capabilities, to scale the amount of staff available to support” as Dorian approaches. 

Acting Homeland Security Department Secretary Kevin McAleenan said on ABC’s This Week on Sunday that federal agencies have deployed 3,000 employees to respond to Dorian, half of whom are direct FEMA employees. On CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, he said, “We've got a very busy operations floor behind me at the National Response Coordination Center with the entire federal government response effort being coordinated with over 200 professionals.” He did not directly address a potential shortage of FEMA reserve employees.

Hurricane Dorian, which will be the first hurricane during Gaynor’s tenure as acting administrator, hit the Bahamas over the weekend and Monday as a catastrophic Category 5 storm. The storm’s path is uncertain, but it passed by the Florida coast on Wednesday as a Category 2 storm and was expected to come closer to the Carolinas or possibly make landfall late Wednesday or Thursday. President Trump named Jeffrey Byard, a top FEMA official, to lead the agency on a permanent basis, but his nomination has been stalled.

Gaynor and McAleenan said they are confident in the federal government’s ability to respond to Hurricane Dorian. Gaynor said on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday there are “no limits” to him serving in an acting capacity and “we have all the funds that we need,” in response to a question on the diversion of funds from FEMA’s budget to the border wall. 

McAleenan said he is briefing the president regularly, who followed the storm from his golf club in Virginia over the holiday weekend tweeting 122 times with updates and commentary, The New York Times reported

Gaynor and McAleenan are two of 13 acting officials in leadership positions at the Homeland Security Department. Trump told reporters on Friday, “Acting [agency officials] gives you great flexibility that you don't have with permanent.” 

Nick Crossley, director of Emergency Management and Homeland Security in Hamilton County, Ohio, and immediate past president of the International Association of Emergency Managers, a nonprofit that represents professionals in disaster recovery and management, told Government Executive he hasn’t seen any issues with staff shortages at FEMA so far with Hurricane Dorian. 

“They seem to be monitoring the situation, they are reaching out to all the states to make sure that they’re prepositioned and have what they need and they are ready to respond with their workforce,” Crossley said.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story stated that Brock Long resigned as FEMA director over improper use of government vehicles. His resignation was not directly linked to that.