On Tuesday, President Donald Trump marked the beginning of hurricane season by thanking FEMA Administrator Brock Long for the agency's work in responding to last year's disasters. “It’s been amazing and you really have kept quite busy, I would say — unfortunately, we had no choice, we were hit hard,” Trump said.
But the extent of 2017’s disasters, including hurricanes Maria, Harvey, and Irma — not to mention California wildfires — have left FEMA with a vastly depleted reserve workforce that will make it harder for the agency to respond in 2018.
In May 31, 2017, the agency had 6,656 workers available to be deployed, according to publicly available internal agency reports reviewed by VICE News. On May 31 of this year, 3,865 were available, about half as many as were available to work at the beginning of hurricane season in 2017.
The backbone of FEMA's emergency response is its "reserve" workforce, temporary workers who can be called up at a moment's notice, something like the military reserves. They’re the workers who deploy to the field to coordinate the distribution of water and food, assist people in processing aid applications, and providing security after a natural disaster or terrorist attack.
Because so many FEMA reservists are still deployed in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Houston, and because it takes FEMA months to hire and train a new reservist, it will be hard to expand that workforce quickly should disaster strike again in 2018.
“The FEMA reservists are the front lines”
“The FEMA reservists are the front lines. Without the reservists FEMA's ability to operate is severely impacted,” Rafael Lemaitre, a former FEMA official told VICE News. “The reservist workforce is only as good as FEMA's ability to recruit and maintain that workforce.”
The reliability of the reserve workforce has been a longstanding issue. Reservists make up more than half of the agency’s total workforce, but aren’t paid as much as contractors or permanent FEMA staff and, until 2012, didn’t get health benefits.
Deployment is largely voluntary — FEMA reservists can turn down jobs — and so the agency believes it can only rely on about 60 to 70 percent of its reserves to actually deploy when asked to at any given time.
Former FEMA officials told VICE News that the lack of available staff raises concerns about the agency’s ability to respond effectively to another event, particularly one that doesn’t take place in a part of the country where FEMA workers are already deployed. FEMA had 4,380 staff deployed in the field as of May 31 this year compared to 2,419 a year ago.
If another disaster hit, FEMA reservists in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Texas, and Florida could be relocated on short notice, which would mean pulling workers out of areas that still have not recovered from 2017.
It takes time to scale up the reservist workforce. Prospective employees need to go through a background check and reservists say the process of becoming a reservist can take months. Even during a disaster, when recruiting is scaled up, reservists say it can take weeks for the process to go through. FEMA operates within the Department of Homeland Security, so new hires go through the DHS background check.
DHS says the length of the process varies, but can take between two weeks and a year. “Consistent with our ongoing commitment to assist survivors before, during, and after disasters, FEMA is continuously seeking to hire talented and motivated individuals as part of our Reservist workforce,” a FEMA spokesperson told VICE News in a statement.
"A longstanding issue"
Even when hurricanes aren’t pummeling the country, the agency’s reliance on temporary workers has been a subject of debate.
“Workforce management challenges have been a long standing issue at FEMA,” said Chris Currie, director for emergency management and national preparedness issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office. “It’s temporary work, it’s not predictable, some people may like to be deployed for months and months and some people may not want to do that.”
A September 2016 report from the Department of Homeland Security’s internal watchdog pointed out the agency’s inability to deploy trained staff reservist staff quickly. “Reservists comprise the largest part of FEMA’s disaster incident workforce, yet FEMA has hired less than half the Reservists it needs based on its target staffing goals,” the report noted.
In the event of serious disasters, FEMA can call on other agencies to send workers on a temporary basis. People from agencies as disparate as the Department of Agriculture and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have been called on to help out during disasters. In 2017, 4,063 employees from across the federal government helped with FEMA-related recovery efforts, according to FEMA’s strategic plan.
But it’s not just at the bottom of the professional ladder that FEMA’s lacking personnel. FEMA doesn’t have a second-in-command and three of four associate-administrator posts are currently either vacant or only temporarily filled. The agency is also doesn’t have a director of external communications or a head of insurance and mitigation.
Current forecasts for this hurricane season indicate that 2018 won’t be quite as disastrous a year as 2017. Still, it’s expected to be a year with an above-average number of named storms, according to researchers at Colorado State University.
In the long term, the number of intense storms is predicted to increase substantially — one of the harsh consequences of human-driven climate change. Researchers at NOAA predict a doubling in the frequency of Category 4 and 5 storms by the end of the century.
Cover image: A FEMA truck sits in floodwaters on the Beltway 8 feeder road in Houston on August 30, 2017, as the fourth-largest city in the U.S. battles with tropical storm Harvey and resulting floods. (Photo: THOMAS B. SHEA/AFP/Getty Images)