By Lucia Bragg
Hurricane season began this month, as concerns increase about the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) capacity to respond to upcoming natural disasters while leading the national COVID-19 response.
FEMA has $74 billion in the Disaster Relief Fund as of May 7, after spending $5.483 billion on COVID-19 emergency or major disaster declarations in March and April. While the vast majority of declarations have been for COVID-19 in recent months, the agency is expecting the share of non-COVID natural disaster declarations to increase.
In preparation, the agency released its COVID-19 Pandemic Operational Guidance for the 2020 Hurricane Season on May 20. The guidance is meant to help emergency managers and public health officials prepare for natural disasters while continuing to respond and recover from COVID-19. Specifically, the guidance:
- Describes anticipated challenges to disaster operations posed by COVID-19.
- Highlights planning considerations for emergency managers based on current challenges.
- Outlines how FEMA plans to adapt response and recovery operations.
- Creates a shared understanding of expectations between FEMA and emergency managers.
- Includes guidance, checklists and resources to support emergency managers' response and recovery planning.
While some aspects of FEMA’s program delivery will be different this year, others remain the same. For example, FEMA does not anticipate major changes in program eligibility, timeliness of grant awards, or level of assistance provided under the Individual and Households Program.
The guidance comes not a moment too soon, as disaster season has already begun in some parts of the country. Already the president has approved major disaster declarations for recent severe storms in Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, among others. Last week, over 10,000 people in central Michigan were evacuated when heavy rain and a slow-moving storm resulted in a 500-year flood and a projected $890 million in damage. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer referred to the event as “truly a crisis in the middle of a crisis,”–which has since received disaster declarations from both Whitmer and FEMA.
FEMA was named lead agency in the fight against the Coronavirus on March 18, however, the agency has been reportedly working with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) since late April to return some operations back to HHS as the virus landscape shifts from response to recovery, states continue to reopen, and disaster seasons approach. In addition to the guidance, FEMA has been working with HHS on a transition plan, expanded the capacity of the National Response Coordination Center, and established a separate facility meant for both pandemic and other disaster response.
Despite these developments, Representative Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, sent a letter on May 28 to FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor raising concerns about the agency’s ability to respond to multiple disasters simultaneously during the COVID-19 pandemic and requesting a briefing on preparation efforts.
Lucia Bragg is a senior policy specialist in NCSL's State-Federal Relations Program.