WASHINGTON — Mounting disasters in the U.S. are spurring concern about the federal government’s ability to handle a storm season that’s projected to produce the most dangerous storm period since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Even before hurricane season officially begins June 1, the U.S. government office that leads the response to natural disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has been called upon to help states deal with the deadly coronavirus pandemic. Disasters have been declared in all 50 states for the first time ever.
FEMA also had to respond this week after heavy rains caused two dams to breach in central Michigan, causing record-setting floods. And other threats are on the horizon. Widespread river flooding is predicted in 23 states, as is an active wildfire season, leading experts to warn the already stretched agency could become depleted.
“They are not ready for a regular season, much less this,” said Robert Verchick, a Loyola University law professor in New Orleans, who wrote a book on the response to Hurricane Katrina. “I would be very surprised if FEMA can adequately respond to the kinds of floods or storms that are in the produced models right now. I think this summer we are going to be on code red.”
Democratic lawmakers are also questioning FEMA’s ability to handle hurricane season on top of the COVID-19 pandemic. They said in a letter to the agency in April that the response to the coronavirus “has overwhelmed FEMA’s already thin resources.”
In addition to a steady increase in virus cases, now totaling more than 1.56 million in the U.S., “spring flooding season is now upon us, wildfire season is fast approaching, tornado outbreaks are starting to spread, a major earthquake could strike at any moment, and hurricane season — which is projected to be above average — is just around the corner,” wrote Rep. Jerry McNerney and Sen. Kamala Harris, both California Democrats.
“Concerns are not just limited to inadequate staffing levels, sheltering procedures in a time of social distancing, (and) a global shortage of necessary protective gear,” the lawmakers said.
FEMA, which declined to make officials available for interview, says it is prepared.
“We continue to take deliberate and proactive steps to respond to and recover from future disasters, such as hurricanes, while responding to COVID-19,” the agency said, adding it has thousands of employees at the ready and the capability of quickly adding more if needed.
“FEMA has already responded to severe weather during this pandemic, with devastating tornadoes in the Southeast, while also preparing for the start of the 2020 hurricane season in less than a month,” it said.
This isn’t the first time FEMA has faced multiple disasters, said Craig Fugate, who headed the agency under President Barack Obama. In addition to tasks like setting up cots and procuring meals and water in disaster zones, much of the agency’s job involves providing financial reimbursement to states, he said.
“As long as they can write checks, I think they are in good shape,” Fugate said in an interview. Still, he added: “Of course FEMA has been impacted, particularly their headquarters staff and their regional staff that have deployed for this.”
FEMA’s staffing shortfalls have been well documented in government studies, including one this month that said the agency reported staffing shortfalls during several large-scale disasters in 2017 and 2018. And FEMA was roundly criticized for its performance in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which killed thousands of people in Puerto Rico in 2017.
Adding to the unique threat of the pandemic is a sense of distrust between governors and the agency, after President Donald Trump threatened to shut off funding to states, notably California, whose policies he disagrees with. Dysfunction over FEMA’s handling of the nation’s stockpile of Personal Protective Equipment like masks and gowns needed during the pandemic has increased that distrust, said Loyola’s Verchick.
“You’ve got governors hiding their stashes of PPE. There has been no transparency in that system,” Verchick said. “A lot of politicians are kind of scared they don’t know what they can rely on.”
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The overlap between the virus and other disasters has FEMA tackling other unique challenges as well, such as how to adjust evacuation orders and shelter-in-place plans to be more socially distant.
People who have to flee to shelters should bring cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer, cloth face masks for every family member above the age of 2, and try to maintain at least 6 feet of distance from any non-family member, Carlos Castillo, acting deputy administrator for resilience at FEMA, told reporters on a call Thursday. People who don’t need to evacuate should shelter in place if possible to keep from over-taxing the system, Castillo added.
“Coronavirus takes some of those resources off the table,” said Daniel Kaniewski, who until January was the agency’s deputy administrator for resilience and now serves as a managing director at Marsh & McLennan Companies, Inc. “What we are seeing with coronavirus is clearly unprecedented.”
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