Is FEMA Short-Handed?

Duh, yes — next question?

Does FEMA have enough staff to handle past disasters that are still being administered as recovery operations; meet current demands being put upon them for missions, generally outside of their primary mission (border and pandemic vaccinations, for example); and be prepared to respond effectively to the upcoming hurricane season, or an earthquake ... disasters that can be forthcoming?

The New York Times had this article last week: "Facing Hurricane and Wildfire Seasons, FEMA Is Already Worn Out."

This topic has been a recurring subject for some time. It is obvious that FEMA does not have a significant surge capacity right now. The only way they can respond to something new being put on their "disaster plate" is by diverting people from what they are currently working on and reassigning them to the new mission — which is what they are doing now.

One disturbing fact mentioned in the article is that there has been twice the number of people leaving FEMA in the past year. In disasters, institutional knowledge is critical in response and even more so in disaster recovery, which can be incredibly complicated to administer.

Robbing Sally to pay Paul has been the modus operandi for surviving in the last four to five years. One impact of that is illustrated by this quote from the linked article above: "The impact on the ground of a strained FEMA can be seen in Panama City, Fla., where Hurricane Michael damaged almost all of the school district’s 40 schools in 2018. The district had been working with FEMA to rebuild but lately that work has ground to a halt, according to William V. Husfelt, the Bay District superintendent.

"Two of the schools are still awaiting money from FEMA for repairs, which means students crowd into other buildings and the middle schoolers are sharing a building with the high school.

"Negotiations with FEMA about payment have repeatedly been set back, as the agency staff who are working with the district get reassigned to other
missions, Mr. Husfelt said. 'These FEMA people are not bad people,' he said. 'I think they’re short-handed.'"

What we do as a nation and a government is run things into the ground until there is a massive failure and then, after some handwringing, we try to fix it. Just look at all the troubles and shortages in staff and equipment that the Capitol Police had, which is coming out in the subsequent investigations following Jan. 6. It will be another 12-18 months before any meaningful change comes to that organization.
Eric Holdeman is a nationally known emergency manager. He has worked in emergency management at the federal, state and local government levels. Today he serves as the Director, Center for Regional Disaster Resilience (CRDR), which is part of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER). The focus for his work there is engaging the public and private sectors to work collaboratively on issues of common interest, regionally and cross jurisdictionally.
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