2020 Is Exposing Emergency Management Gaps

Hurricanes Laura and Marcos are headed for the same sections of the Gulf Coast impacted almost exactly 15 years ago by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. 

These storms arrive at a time when FEMA is already managing:

For the third time since 2017, FEMA may find itself coordinating simultaneous responses to catastrophic disasters, which is something the agency lacks the capacity to do adequately, according to prior reports issued by FEMA and the Government Accountability Office (GAO). 

Hurricanes, floods, wildfires...and COVID-19. 2020 has been a year of disasters.

Aug. 20, 2020 at Vacaville, California (U.S. Air Force photo by Nicholas Pilch); COVID-19 Virus (U.S. Dept. of State website); Aug.24, 2020 Hurricanes Marcos and Laura (NOAA GOES-EAST GeoColor Image)

This year there have also been several incidents that haven’t triggered federal major disaster declarations, but have strained local and state emergency managers, nonetheless. These include Tropical Storms Cristobal (Gulf Coast) and Fay (Southeast and Mid-Atlantic); Hurricanes Hanna (Texas) and Isaias (Carolinas and Mid-Atlantic); and multiple wildfires in Florida, California, Arizona, and many other western states.

The events of 2020, and of recent years, have exposed the gaps in the nation’s emergency and disaster management capacity—a fact that is borne out in two recent reports from the GAO:

In general, these reports underscore the need to

  • Provide much-needed resources to build the capacity of state and local emergency managers, especially for planning, recovery, and hazard mitigation missions.
  • Improve FEMA’s capacity to manage and respond to simultaneous catastrophic disasters.

State and Local Capacity

According to the GAO’s report on National Preparedness, the federal government has spent at least $460 billion between 2005 and 2019 on post-disaster assistance, an average of $30.7 billion per year.

In comparison, FEMA distributed $315 million in 2019 to help build state and local capacity to prepare and plan for future disasters, about 1 percent of our annual disaster response expenses (FY20 appropriations for what’s known as the Emergency Management Grant Program increased to $350 million). GAO’s report points out that FEMA and Department of Homeland Security spend three times that amount, about $1 billion each year, to bolster anti-terrorism capacity of state and local governments.

State and local emergency managers are on the front lines of responding to everything from COVID-19, to wildfires, hurricanes, and floods, while also being expected to plan for future disasters and find ways to reduce communities’ long-term risks. As the climate changes and events like the COVID-19 pandemic occur, there is a greater likelihood that they’ll have to manage the response and recovery from simultaneous disasters, on top of all these other responsibilities. 

Doing that would be a heavy lift for communities with relatively well-staffed emergency management offices.  For under-resourced low-income communities or communities of color, it’s probably an impossible task.

FEMA Capacity

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico was devastated and FEMA found it difficult to deploy enough staff to handle the scope and magnitude of the disaster. FEMA was simultaneously handling multiple “Level 1” disasters and was stretched very thin, not unlike they are this year due to COVID-19 and multiple other disasters the agency is managing.

GAO’s report on FEMA’s Disaster Workforce finds that the agency has been hard-pressed to deploy adequate staff and it has also struggled to provide sufficient training to those staff.  GAO found that FEMA is having difficulty training and maintaining cadres of permanent and temporary staff to manage and respond to major disasters, administer long-term recovery operations, and support local and state planning, preparedness, and hazard mitigation efforts.

What Can We Do?

NRDC recommends that Congress work to correct these shortfalls through the following actions.

  • Double funding for FEMA’s Emergency Management Partnership Grants from $350 million per year in FY20 to $700 million per year. These dollars bolster state and local emergency management capacity. In addition, Congress should decrease the cost-share requirements for low-income communities and communities of color, who are in great need of assistance. By statute, grant recipients must contribute a 50 percent non-federal match. For under-resourced and economically disadvantaged communities, that matching requirement likely puts these grants out of reach.
  • Require FEMA to conduct a staffing and resource analysis and determine what is necessary for the agency and state partners to respond to simultaneous Level 1 disasters. Beyond disaster response and recovery, the analysis should also examine what’s needed to bolster federal, state, and local disaster preparedness and hazard mitigation efforts, particularly in light of the impacts of climate change.  
  • Fund increased staffing levels at FEMA consistent with the staffing analysis.
  • Establish an independent National Disaster Review Board. My colleague, Anna Weber, has written about this recently. “Natural disasters” are often not natural at all, but the result of human decisions about the built environment, the social structures surrounding it, and our capacity to plan, prepare, and respond once they occur. We do not have a system in place for evaluating how these past decisions contributed to a disaster and, consequently, we have a limited ability to learn from our mistakes and put those lessons into action.

About the Authors

Rob Moore

Senior Policy Analyst, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program
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