WASHINGTON – Federal Emergency Management Agency workers have sought shelters for the migrant children pouring across the southern border. They have operated coronavirus vaccination centers in Colorado, Massachusetts, and Washington. And they are still managing the recovery from a number of record-breaking disasters, starting with Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
In an unusually devastating period of hurricanes and forest fires, only 3,800 of the agency’s 13,700 rescue workers are currently available to respond to a new disaster. That is 29 percent less than at the beginning of last year’s hurricane season, which began on June 1st, as every year.
FEMA has seldom been in higher demand – it has become something of a 911 hotline for some of President Biden’s most pressing political challenges. And the men and women who have become the nation’s first responders are tired.
Deanne Criswell, President Biden’s choice to run the agency, identified burnout as a major problem at their first FEMA hands-on meeting, according to Steve Reaves, president of the union hall that represents workers.
“FEMA is like the car engine that has been redlining since Harvey arrived in 2017,” said Brock Long, who ran the agency under former President Donald J. Trump and is now executive chairman of Hagerty Consulting. “It takes a toll.”
For some categories of workers the shortage is severe. Among the agency’s senior executives qualified to coordinate field missions, only three out of 53 are currently available, the data shows. Other specialized types of staff, including operations and planning staff, have fewer than 15 percent of their staff.
“As we prepare for hurricane and forest fire seasons, or whatever the outdoors brings us, I firmly believe that FEMA staff have the tools to continue supporting ongoing missions while ensuring that our deployed workforce Have time to rest and exercise to be ready for what’s next, ”Ms. Criswell said in a statement.
One problem FEMA doesn’t have is money. The federal fund, which pays for its disaster work, has around 50 billion US dollars. It is human resources that are in short supply.
Part of the burden reflects the large number of disaster recovery operations FEMA is still conducting, from last year’s record 30 storms that struck states like Louisiana and Texas to the wildfires that struck California last September have broken out. These disasters, which take years to recover, have placed an increasing workload on the agency’s staff.
A growing number of employees have made their way to the exits. In 2020, more FEMA employees moved to other authorities in the last ten years than in any other year – twice as many as in the previous year, according to the federal government.
A former employee who left FEMA in 2019 for another agency and asked not to be named worked in the office that manages external contractors. Because the staff in her office were used to deal with disasters, they were not replaced. However, the workload on her team was not reduced, resulting in longer and longer working days. She called it a “sweat shop”.
In interviews, current and former FEMA employees described 12-hour days, canceled vacations with their families, and insufficient time to recover between assignments.
A current FEMA manager, who spoke on condition of anonymity for not having the authority to speak to the press, said he had never seen the staff get thinner.
Under President Biden, FEMA’s mission expanded dramatically. Praised for his ability to empathize with those who suffer, Mr. Biden has increasingly employed an agency that in the past primarily managed the distribution of disaster funds to state governments.
When he traveled to Texas in February, he promised to send federal support to the area quickly – a marked difference from Mr. Trump, who threatened to withhold FEMA funds from fire-ravaged California while talking with Democratic officials in the State spat.
When he promised to give Americans 100 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine by his first 100 days in office, Mr Biden hired FEMA to run mass vaccination sites.
To carry out this mission, the agency rerouted employees. For example, moving staff who typically manage flood insurance or disaster control to vaccination centers and other coronavirus duties, the former official said.
By the end of April, almost 3,000 FEMA employees were working on the Covid vaccination, as well as more than a third of senior executives.
The agency has been directed to support other efforts during the pandemic, including managing funeral aid for Americans. When FEMA opened a call center to handle inquiries, officials were flooded and callers waited on hold for hours – an indicator of the agency’s struggle to deal with multiple crises at once.
The Biden government directed FEMA in March to help identify housing for immigrant children and youth on the southwest border after thousands of minors were detained in detention facilities managed by the Border Patrol earlier this year.
The agency’s participation a few weeks before the hurricane season drew criticism from Representative John Katko, the most senior member of the House’s Homeland Security Committee.
“I have serious concerns that this will strain a FEMA workforce and budget that is already thinly spread,” said Katko, Republican of New York.
During her confirmation hearing, Ms. Criswell, the FEMA administrator, was urged to determine whether FEMA’s role in the various crises, including responding to rising crossings on the southwest border, had put the agency at a disadvantage in the face of the impending hurricane and flood season.
Republican Senator Josh Hawley from Missouri said he wanted to know “FEMA is ready to respond to its other core missions.”
“FEMA’s workforce is your most valuable resource,” replied Ms. Criswell. “You have responded to multiple disasters for several years.”
As a sign that natural disasters are a priority, the White House held an exercise with various agencies on Wednesday to prepare for hurricane season, according to a senior civil servant. As well as discussing emergency response measures, they discussed how to invest in community resilience to future storms, fires and other weather-related disasters.
The team left the exercise confident that FEMA can handle the various emergencies, and there are no immediate plans to get them out of efforts at the border or to reduce staffing at vaccination sites, the official said. Mr Biden also plans to visit FEMA next week for a briefing on the hurricane season.
In a way, the trust of the Biden government and the frequent involvement of FEMA marks a comeback for an agency that has received much criticism for its failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“FEMA after Katrina was not seen as one of your better federal agencies to solve problems,” said Craig Fugate, who ran the agency during the Obama administration and served on Mr. Biden’s transition team. In contrast, he said it was now “a one-stop shop”.
The impact of a tense FEMA on the ground can be seen in Panama City, Florida, where Hurricane Michael 2018 damaged nearly all 40 schools in the school district. The district had worked with FEMA to rebuild it, but recently that work has started on a halt, according to William V. Husfelt, the superintendent of the Bay District.
Two of the schools are still waiting for money from FEMA for repairs, which means students will crowd into other buildings and middle school students will share a building with the high school.
Negotiations with FEMA over the payment have been repeatedly pulled back as the agency’s staff who work with the district are reassigned to other missions, Husfelt said.
“These FEMA people are not bad people,” he said. “I think they are understaffed.”