A FEMA official unloads medical supplies arriving from Turkey at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland in late April.

A FEMA official unloads medical supplies arriving from Turkey at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland in late April. Patrick Semansky/AP

Democrats Press FEMA on Hurricane Season Preparations Amid Pandemic

Lawmakers want more information on staffing and procurement.

On Monday, House Democrats pressed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to explain how the agency plans to handle hurricane season and other natural disasters amid the public health crisis. 

The Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee's Environment subcommittee sent a letter to FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor asking for a video hearing by June 22. Prior to hurricane season starting on June 1, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted this year would be above-average for storm activity. The lawmakers noted that as climate change worsens over time, the agency will have to continuously improve how it prepares and responds to natural disasters. Although many states––including New York, one of the hardest hit states in the COVID-19 pandemic––are starting to reopen, public health experts fear a resurgence of the coronavirus could overwhelm the healthcare system in some regions. 

“As our country continues to navigate this unprecedented public health crisis, FEMA itself is in uncharted territory,” wrote Reps. Harley Rouda, D-Calif.; Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.; Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill.; Jackie Speier, D-Calif.; Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif.; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.; and Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C. “Even if FEMA transitions from its current leadership role and other agencies take on greater coordination responsibilities for the coronavirus crisis, FEMA will face depleted resources and staffing challenges while still playing a critical part in ongoing coronavirus response.”

The lawmakers want FEMA to describe the number of disasters it expects to respond to this season and its ability to respond to them concurrently; how it plans to protect the health and safety of staff and increase staffing levels to meet needs; its plans to manage, distribute and replenish supplies and equipment following the pandemic; and efforts to procure essential supplies (such as food and water) in advance. 

The lawmakers outlined some of FEMA’s long-term challenges in their letter. They cited a Homeland Security Department inspector general report that found the agency didn’t issue any advance contracts prior to Hurricane Maria that devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017 nor did it use existing ones in the aftermath. This was due to a “lack of strategy and documented planning process for ensuring maximum use of advance contracts,” said the IG, and “goods and services for people in need may have been delayed or were more costly to the government” as a result. The lawmakers said there are major questions about whether or not FEMA is soliciting and securing advanced contracts now. 

They also cited a Government Accountability Office report that determined FEMA had “significant challenges” in simultaneously preparing for and responding to numerous wildfires and hurricanes in 2017. The challenges FEMA faces are exacerbated by acute staffing and equipment shortages stemming from the agency’s pandemic response, the lawmakers noted: “The number of available personnel qualified to lead field operations has fallen from 44 to 19, staff members have been pulled from responding to other disasters, training centers have been shuttered, and new employee recruitment efforts are on hold.”

On May 3, Axios reported on FEMA’s plans to handle the potentially unprecedented number of crises this summer. Those plans included taking over empty office space in Washington and setting up an extra command center to handle non-coronavirus issues. “We're doing a lot of things that are not necessarily in any playbook that has existed," Gaynor told Axios. "In some cases, we write the playbook as we go."

The lawmakers acknowledged that FEMA released guidelines on May 20 about hurricane preparations during the pandemic, but argued that the 59-page document falls short. “Although the guidance references hiring personnel and virtual onboarding, it does not provide specifics regarding the number of staff being hired and any expected shortfalls in staffing if there is a second wave of coronavirus in the fall,” they wrote. Also, “it provides insufficient guidance for preparations for wildfire season, flooding, earthquakes, and tornadoes,” and “lacks many details regarding the agency’s preparedness for hurricane season.”

A FEMA spokesperson told Government Executive that they received the letter and “will continue to work with Congress in their oversight capacity.” The spokesperson also noted that Gaynor, along with two other top officials from the Defense and Health and Human Services departments, will testify before the Senate Judiciary committee on Tuesday about procurement and distribution of coronavirus supplies. 

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