Washington, D.C. – As the 2020 wildfire season rapidly approaches, Oregon’s U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, along with Representatives Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR-1), Peter DeFazio (D-OR-4), and 78 of their congressional colleagues, are demanding that the Trump administration outline disaster preparation and recovery plans for a variety of potential disasters that may occur while the nation simultaneously addresses the coronavirus pandemic.
In their letter urging Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Peter Gaynor to develop the plans, the lawmakers emphasized the unique challenges of responding to disasters—including wildfires—amid a pandemic.
“As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases across the country has steadily increased since the President invoked the Stafford Act, 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,” the lawmakers wrote. “Addressing major disasters like these requires a highly coordinated response across all levels of government that will be greatly complicated by the COVID-19 national emergency, including the social distancing measures public health officials are recommending.”
“Further, the COVID-19 response has overwhelmed FEMA’s already thin resources, raising concerns about the Agency’s ability to handle both a nationwide public health crisis and the upcoming seasonal hazards that await,” the lawmakers continued. “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.”
In light of these urgent issues, the lawmakers requested that FEMA share with Congress the steps it is taking to ensure that the Agency is fully prepared to carry out its mission in responding to natural disasters during this pandemic.
Senators Merkley and Wyden have kept a steady drumbeat on the need to prepare for Oregon’s upcoming wildfire season, and announced last month that the U.S. Forest Service is bringing on five additional airtankers for use in Oregon. Those airtankers bring the total number of aircraft available for wildfire response to 18.
The full text of the letter is available here and follows below.
Dear Administrator Gaynor:
We write to seek information about what specific steps the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is taking to ensure that it is adequately prepared to respond to a natural disaster during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. While these are unprecedented times and your Agency is working diligently to lead the Federal government response to the pandemic, we know that a natural disaster could strike at any moment. As the lead Federal agency responsible for emergency preparedness, response and recovery, it is imperative that your disaster preparation and recovery plans reflect the unique challenges presented by this ongoing pandemic response, so that the Federal government can provide adequate and timely assistance to any impacted State, local, tribal, or territorial government.
As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases across the country has steadily increased since the President invoked the Stafford Act, 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. Addressing major disasters like these requires a highly coordinated response across all levels of government that will be greatly complicated by the COVID-19 national emergency, including the social distancing measures public health officials are recommending. Further, the COVID-19 response has overwhelmed FEMA’s already thin resources, raising concerns about the Agency’s ability to handle both a nationwide public health crisis and the upcoming seasonal hazards that await.
The hurricane and wildfire seasons of 2017 and 2018—which saw an unprecedented volume of catastrophic disasters—and the declared events in the years since have greatly tested FEMA’s all-hazards approach to disaster response. In Puerto Rico, we saw the devastating effects of a smaller scale public health crisis that resulted from an inadequate response to a natural disaster. In the Agency’s own after-action report, FEMA acknowledged that it was unprepared for Irma and Maria in both supplies and personnel. The report found that chronic understaffing in the Agency had put it in a position where they “placed staff in positions beyond their experiences and, in some instances, beyond their capabilities.”
Unfortunately, such issues remain while we are now facing the prospect of a simultaneous major natural disaster compounding the current public health emergency arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. Concerns are not just limited to inadequate staffing levels, sheltering procedures in a time of social distancing, a global shortage of necessary protective gear. It is critical that FEMA share with Congress the steps it is taking to ensure that the Agency is fully prepared to carry out its mission in responding to natural disasters during this pandemic.
Therefore, we respectfully request answers to the following questions:
- If a natural disaster were to hit today, how many of FEMA’s specialized staff—those fully qualified to work in operations, safety, and planning—would be immediately available to deploy?
- With the Agency’s own Daily Operations Brief consistently reporting single digit availability of FEMA’s field leadership contingent—Federal Coordinating Officers, who are trained and certified to manage disasters around the country—available to be deployed, what is the Agency’s plan to grow the ranks of this cadre and how long will it take to train new field leaders?
- How soon does FEMA anticipate needing to utilize the Surge Capacity Force and/or increase the number of contractors, and what is the current strategy for doing so?
- FEMA’s two main training facilities – the Emergency Management Institute and the Center for Domestic Preparedness — have been closed since March 14 and are not scheduled to open until at least May 10. What is the Agency’s plan for training both Federal staff and its State, local, tribal, and territorial partners?
- What are the specific strategies FEMA is using to coordinate with Federal, state, and local agencies in order to share information and prepare for the unique challenges these upcoming and overlapping disaster seasons will bring?
- How have those strategies changed to account for the unique challenges facing stakeholders such as limited training, conferences, and briefings that normally provide opportunities for sharing information and best practices?
- How is FEMA preparing for the possibility that a significant number of its own personnel may be ill or in self-isolation when faced with short- or no-notice natural disaster response and recovery?
- With FEMA relying on federal firefighters from the USFS, BLM, and other agencies to provide qualified incident management expertise for the COVID-19 response, what coordination has been undertaken with their home agencies to ensure that such personnel are ready for their primary mission come wildfire season and to reduce their risk of COVID-19 infection during their service under the FEMA-led pandemic response?
- How will FEMA ensure its Reservist cadre—which includes personnel who have underlying health conditions or may be older in age—are not penalized for opting out of a potentially hazardous deployment?
- With supply shortages of basic personal protective equipment (PPE) well-known, what is FEMA’s plan for providing PPE and other critical equipment to its staff and volunteers in order to ensure their health and safety during upcoming response operations?
- What is FEMA’s plan for coordinating with an already over-burdened health care system in the event that thousands of potential disaster survivors require medical assistance?
- What is FEMA’s alternate plan to address the need for mass sheltering and evacuation facilities when public health officials have advised for social distancing and against large gatherings?
- Is FEMA considering using its authority to activate Transitional Sheltering Assistance to utilize hotels and other non-congregate sheltering options in the immediate wake of a disaster rather than long-planned congregate shelters?
- What is FEMA’s plan to address the potential need for first responder base camps, which can often be crowded and make it difficult to follow social distancing guidelines?
- What efforts are being made by FEMA to coordinate directly with state and local entities to ensure that individuals in need of temporary housing as a result of a natural disaster have access to the food supplies they need, such as ensuring adequate numbers of volunteers to assist in food preparation and distribution or developing a program to reimburse states if they hire caterers and service industry workers should other voluntary organizations or aid not be available?
- What is FEMA doing to coordinate with the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (NVOAD) to prepare for the real possibility of not being able to readily deploy the traditional volunteer force?
- What is FEMA’s plan for managing already stretched thin personnel across potentially multiple simultaneous natural disasters during the pandemic response, and what challenges does FEMA foresee in carrying out response efforts under these circumstances?
- Is FEMA considering halting permanent work on still-open past disasters and other ongoing projects in order to allocate additional resources and personnel for its pandemic response? If so, please specify the projects that would be impacted.
- Is FEMA considering proactively activating Public and Individual Assistance given the challenges states will face gathering Preliminary Damage Assessments?
- Is FEMA planning to provide states, tribes, and territories with any additional resources for natural disaster response, given that their emergency response capacity is being consumed by the COVID-19 pandemic?
- Does FEMA have a plan to expand the National Response Coordination Center at FEMA Headquarters or set up an expanded site in the event additional large-scale interagency activations are needed over the next few months?
In the case that FEMA has to respond to natural disasters during this pandemic, how will that affect the resources it is currently dedicating to the Coronavirus Task Force operations and other COVID-related efforts?