Delta and disasters push FEMA close to the breaking point

Delta and disasters push FEMA close to the breaking point

An unprecedented convergence of disasters is straining the capacity of the Federal Emergency Management Agency close to its limit, as it grapples with a historic wildfire season, devastation from Hurricane Ida and the surging Covid-19 outbreak.


Four senior administration officials told POLITICO they are concerned about the agency’s capacity to respond if — as feared — the current Covid surge spreads to more states this fall while the federal government is responding to natural disasters.

“Hurricane season is just beginning,” said one of the officials, who is involved with the administration’s emergency response system. “What happens if there is a major storm … and then there is another massive surge of cases?”


Of particular concern is whether the administration will tap FEMA to help run mass vaccination sites to administer booster shots this fall, the officials said. The military provides the majority of staff at such sites, but FEMA is the coordinating body. And while FEMA is providing medical help to hospitals in states overrun by the virus, it is not clear whether the agency will be able to meet rising demand for such aid in the coming weeks, the officials added.


In the meantime, FEMA also is running a $1 billion program to reimburse the funeral costs of families affected by Covid-19, helping to resettle Afghan refugees, and aiding communities ravaged by wildfires, hurricanes and flooding.


“If you look at the extreme rainfall events, they are occurring at a frequency that I have never experienced,” said Craig Fugate, the FEMA administrator during the Obama administration — citing just one of the agency’s current challenges. “For FEMA’s job, the response is busy, but it’s really the backlog of the recovery efforts that accumulates and that is difficult. With more and more disasters, the question then becomes when do you start making more investments to grow the human capital?”


Internal senior leadership briefings obtained by POLITICO show the disparate nature of FEMA’s activity across the country. The agency is responding to 64 major disasters nationwide, according to one of the documents. It has deployed thousands of personnel across 20 states to carry out water rescues and evacuations, deliver emergency supplies and help hospitals care for Covid-19 patients.


“FEMA has operated in a COVID-19 environment for almost two years and while the pandemic presents challenges, our agency full of emergency managers is capable of responding to multiple disasters at once,” said Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokesperson for the agency. “We staged ambulances, generators, resources and personnel earlier this week in anticipation of Hurricane Ida to complement the resources already on the ground for the COVID-19 response.”


But there is growing concern inside the top echelons of the Biden administration that state governments’ dwindling capacity to continue responding to devastating natural disasters as well as spikes in Covid-19 cases could put more pressure on FEMA — and the entire federal government — in the coming months.


“It is really about looking at how battered some of these states are right now,” one senior administration official told POLITICO. “Some of these states are completely overwhelmed by requests from residents and are literally trying to save lives on a daily basis. The pandemic is complicating all of that. They’re going to need more help.”


The rapid pace at which disasters have emerged in recent weeks has challenged the agency, especially against the backdrop of a pandemic that is now more than 18 months old.


“I am looking at whether we could reach a point where federal capacity overall is stretched,” said Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security. “It is something that as you look to the future where we could get to a point where crises are not measured in 10 year cycles, but by 10 or 15 day cycles. And that will impact FEMA because they will need to make choices about the deployment of resources.”

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