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What the F…EMA happened last week?

My World's on Fire
What the F…EMA happened last week?
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #12 • View online

“My World’s on Fire” is a free newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. My goal is to help you feel a bit more at ease about our unpredictable world by equipping you with in-depth reporting and insights around policy, preparation, response, and resiliency. I can only do that with your continued support, so please subscribe and share!
FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor being sworn in (C-SPAN2)
If you’ve found yourself looking for something new to watch as we enter month five of self-isolating, you’re in luck! Last week, FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor testified in front of two House subcommittees, and you can stream bothsessions free on CSPAN.
Now, for those of you who don’t feel like watching four-plus hours of bureaucracy in action (I can’t imagine why!), I wanted to use today’s newsletter to give you a TLDR of what Gaynor had to say about FEMA’s disaster season preparedness. Of course, it’s more complicated than usual this year, not only due to coronavirus concerns, but also because of the agency’s leading role in the pandemic.
While you might have heard more from Dr. Fauci or President Trump, FEMA’s actually in charge of coordinating the national response to the pandemic. That’s on top of the agency’s other emergency work, including dealing with ongoing and future disaster planning, response, and recovery. And, as Rep. Harley Rouda (D-CA) pointed out, there’s an overlap between these two areas, with a number of the states most at risk of natural hazards (think: California, Florida, Texas) also seeing some of the highest increases in COVID-19 cases.
It’s a tough job, but FEMA’s gotta do it – so let’s see how that’s going.
First, some FEMA facts:
  • FEMA – the Federal Emergency Management Agency – was created by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 to coordinate “the federal government’s role in preparing for, preventing, mitigating the effects of, responding to, and recovering from all domestic disasters, whether natural or man-made, including acts of terror.”
  • Peter Gaynor is the third FEMA Administrator under President Trump. He was confirmed in January 2020 after first serving as the Deputy Administrator and Acting Administrator during his two years with the agency. Before that, he worked for state and local emergency management organizations in Rhode Island for more than 10 years.
  • As of July 24, FEMA was dealing with 114 active disasters and 97 emergencies, according to Gaynor. He also noted that this is the first time there has been a major disaster declaration in “every state, territory, the District of Columbia, and one tribe” at the same time, in case you needed a reminder of how serious the pandemic is!
Now, onto the hearings:
Gaynor appeared in front of the House Homeland Security Committee on July 22nd and the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment on July 24th. At both, he claimed the agency is “completely ready” for whatever comes its way.
In fact: “I don’t think FEMA has been more ready than we are today,” Gaynor insisted.
When it comes to the specifics of how the agency is acknowledging coronavirus restrictions in disaster response, he referred back to a set of operational guidelines released by the agency in May. The document, linked to below, offers what he called “scalable” and “flexible” advice, providing planning checklists and general considerations to account for reduced staffing, socially-distanced evacuations, stockpiling necessary PPE, and other 2020-specific considerations.
A common refrain Gaynor repeated throughout the sessions was the role of FEMA to provide “frameworks, guidance, technical assistance” – meaning that the rest is up to more local agencies to figure out. For example, when asked about how screening and testing would work after evacuations, he said it’s up to state or local governments to provide any “appropriate testing,” though FEMA would help them as a “partner.”
This is something we’ll likely hear more about this season, with the importance of testing and coronavirus precautions clearly clashing with some disaster response protocols in worst-case scenarios.
For an example of that, take what’s happening in Florida right now: the state, which has the second-highest COVID-19 caseload in the nation, is facing a potential tropical storm. So, out of safety precautions, it’s temporarily shuttering all state-run testing sites starting this afternoon.
Another key line of questioning came from Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), who was concerned not only about future disasters, but also about an ongoing one: the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.
According to recent reports, thousands of Puerto Rico residents remain homeless nearly three years after the disaster, which damaged hundreds of thousands of homes. Some federally-funded programs have failed to produce results, with one initiative racking up a waiting list 27,000 people long without completing work on a single home.
“We are the most powerful country in the world and whenever there has been a natural disaster in other countries, we move federal assets to make it happen,” Velázquez said. “They deserve the power and fire of the United States.”
Gaynor said FEMA has provided Puerto Rico with “historic levels of support,” adding that there are still more than 2,000 employees on the ground there. He also claimed that the agency’s relationship with Puerto Rico’s governor has “never been stronger.”
But just a few days later, CBS correspondent David Begnaud tweeted a letter sent from FEMA to Puerto Rico’s governor. In it, the regional FEMA director said Puerto Rico is “not well prepared nor has the ability to respond and manage a major event” – which is not at all what you want to hear during hurricane season and not at all aligned with Gaynor’s testimony.
David Begnaud
SCOOP: Here’s the letter @FEMA sent to Puerto Rico Governor @wandavazquezg saying PR is “not well prepared nor has the ability to respond and manage a major event.” FEMA says the Governor has not responded even as a tropical storm is expected to hit the island in 36hrs.
Thread👇🏻 https://t.co/sN5pkJNGvP
You can bet Velázquez had something to say about that.
At the end of the second hearing, there was one other quick, but noteworthy, exchange. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) asked Gaynor where he stands on climate change – a question he punted during his 2019 confirmation hearing, claiming, “I’m not a scientist.”
While he said that again in this response, he also elaborated this time that FEMA does “consider” climate change in its work as part of the agency’s responsibility of “making sure we understand all the things that impact readiness.”
Like most hearings, there was clearly a lot of grandstanding and partisan siding, but it was interesting to hear Gaynor’s full-throated claims of the agency’s preparedness in the face of extreme challenges.
Let’s hope he’s right.
If you’re interested in hearing more about how FEMA views the next few months of COVID-19 and compounding disaster response, I’ve linked to some additional coverage of these topics below.
I also have an embarrassing amount of notes, so let me know if you’d be interested in a part II/regular general updates on FEMA, as well as any other questions or thoughts on this topic.
Read more:
  • FEMA released a Civil Rights Bulletin to guide “inclusive” COVID-19 response, the first time the agency has issued such guidelines, per Gaynor (FEMA.gov)
  • ‘Known For Disaster Aid, FEMA Prepares For New Challenge With Coronavirus Relief’ (NPR)
  • ‘FEMA head says coronavirus hot spots may face PPE shortages, U.S. isn’t ‘out of the woods’’(CNBC)
  • ‘FEMA Sends Faulty Protective Gear to Nursing Homes Battling Virus’ (New York Times)
  • ‘FEMA acknowledges Puerto Rico lacks rebuilt homes and a hospital to survive COVID-19’ (NBC News)
And, as always…
thank you for becoming an early part of this community and sharing it with yours! Here’s a little something for reading to the end.
Colleen
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