2017’s disaster onslaught stretched FEMA to limit


NEW YORK – Jan. 8, 2018 – George Haddow hasn't worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in nearly two decades. So he was surprised to receive an email in September asking him to return to work on a 30-day assignment in one of the country's multiple disaster zones.

That marked the first time Haddow, a senior fellow with Tulane University's Disaster Relief  Leadership Academy, was solicited by FEMA since leaving, a move that underscores the measures the agency has taken to deal with this year's onslaught of disasters.

"Does FEMA have the capacity as it is formed and funded right now to deal with this type of disaster year?" said Haddow, who worked at FEMA as a White House liaison from 1993 to 2001 and didn't take the short-term assignment. "This year proves that it does not."

On many fronts, 2017 has been a record-setting year for disasters, including three major hurricanes striking U.S. shores, widespread flooding and a slew of devastating wildfires. The hurricanes caused about $370 billion in damages and about 250 deaths on U.S. lands, making it by far the costliest U.S. hurricane season on record.

The three hurricanes affected nearly 26 million people, or 8 percent of the U.S. population. By mid-October, more than 4 million survivors registered for FEMA assistance – more than the number of people who registered for Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Wilma and Sandy combined, the agency said.

The federal disaster response and recovery agency has been stretched to its limit, delivering aid to survivors and helping rebuild storm-wrecked cities. To compensate, it recruited workers from other federal agencies, reached out to retirees and solicited state and local agencies for help. More than 22,300 members of the federal workforce have been deployed to Texas, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

FEMA's struggles to help damaged communities have been felt from the mountains of central Puerto Rico to the fire-mauled swaths of Northern California.

"They got hammered," said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services. "Between Irma, Harvey, Puerto Rico – those are all big events. They leveraged everyone they have."

In California, FEMA set up a small team early to help survivors of the wildfires that devoured sections of the state's wine country in October and exploded in Southern California this month, he said. As FEMA stretched its workers over multiple disaster zones in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the agency asked California's emergency management officials for help staff FEMA centers.

"I've been doing this for 30 years, and I can't remember that ever happening before," Ghilarducci said. "Every piece of everything we have in the toolbox has been leveraged this year."

As disasters sprouted across the USA, FEMA officials tapped into 3,800 extra workers in the Department of Homeland Security's Surge Capacity Force, as well as FEMA reservists, who are on-call for disasters. When that wasn't enough, they made the rare move of recruiting workers from other federal departments, who needed to be quickly trained and mobilized to disaster zones.

Still short-handed, FEMA sent out emails to retirees and tapped into the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, or EMAC, a mutual aid agreement with states to share resources during times of need. Over the past six years, FEMA has recruited an average of 1,700 state workers per year through the EMAC agreement. This year, it's requested 17,790 – or 10 times the recent average. Only 2005 was higher, when FEMA recruited 67,048 state workers because of Katrina and other storms.

Despite the lack of manpower, FEMA has gotten to disaster zones fast and helped millions of people in need, said Mike Sprayberry, president of the National Emergency Management Association. The true test will come when these spread-out disaster zones shift from response to long-term recovery, an area FEMA also oversees, he said.

Funding has been another challenge. FEMA had $2 billion on hand for disaster relief when Harvey barreled into South Texas on Aug. 17, according to the agency. Congress has passed two emergency disaster relief bills totaling more than $50 billion since then, but need is outpacing funds. Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossell estimated damages to his island at about $95 billion. U.S. lawmakers are considering another multibillion-dollar request for disaster funding, but it may not pass until next month.

In testimony to Congress in October, FEMA Administrator Brock Long warned that disasters in the USA are more frequent and costlier because of more destructive storms and a widening gap between insured and uninsured losses.

From 1995 through 2004, the White House approved 598 disaster declarations costing $37 billion in FEMA assistance. From 2005 to 2014, that number jumped to 808 disasters at a cost of $107 billion, he said.

Haddow said President Trump was good at quickly declaring federal disasters to unlock money and resources, but as the disasters piled up, FEMA was overwhelmed. "They just didn't have enough bodies," he said.

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