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Not The Government's '911': FEMA Stretched With Multiple Deployments

President Biden speaks at a FEMA COVID-19 mass vaccination site in Houston in February.
Patrick Semansky
President Biden speaks at a FEMA COVID-19 mass vaccination site in Houston in February.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, is the agency we think of responding to natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes. But in recent weeks it's also been helping to administer COVID-19 vaccinations in several states, as well as assisting at the border.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last month FEMA was helping the Department of Health and Human Services place unaccompanied minors in shelters and with families. "They're playing a number of roles there to address what we feel is a significant problem and a significant challenge."

Playing a "number of roles" is nothing new for FEMA, but Elizabeth Zimmerman, a former associate administrator at the agency during the Obama administration, says it does pose a potential problem.

"FEMA is stretched very thin right now," she told NPR. "FEMA is the coordinating agency on behalf of the president and does their job and does it very well. But when you do look at FEMA's daily reports with the number of staff that they have available to deploy for disasters, it is very low."

With some 5,000 full-time employees, FEMA is one of the smallest federal agencies. It has another 23,000 temporary workers on reserve. Almost all are deployed right now, working on previous disasters and at the border and with COVID-19, leaving about 2,700 workers available in case another disaster strikes.

Steve Reaves, president of AFGE National Local 4060, the union that represents FEMA employees, says the agency is short-staffed with future disaster deployments likely on top of existing responsibilities. "With fire season and hurricane season, and right after that flood season, the mudslides season, right? We need we need more people."

Brock Long, who served as FEMA administrator during the Trump administration, said in a statement to NPR that "if the FEMA workforce was a car engine, it has been red-lining since 2017."

He said the current path is unsustainable, and that the agency "was never designed to be the federal government's equivalent to 911."

But Zimmerman says that's just what the agency has become: "FEMA is looked at across the whole federal government as being that agency who knows how to coordinate and bring people together to get action, to get results."

A FEMA representative assists people waiting to receive a dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site in Los Angeles on March 11.
Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
A FEMA representative assists people waiting to receive a dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site in Los Angeles on March 11.

Craig Fugate, who was FEMA administrator during the Obama administration, says concerns about the agency being stretched too thin are exaggerated.

"This is an evergreen story, it comes up every time FEMA gets busy. What most people don't understand is that there's a lot of flexibility in how FEMA deploys," he says.

Fugate says the vaccination centers are not staffed entirely by FEMA. "There's a lot of contractors and a lot of other federal agencies that are doing the bulk of it," he says. "So, you know, when you think about these sites, they're not like hundreds of FEMA employees at every one of them."

Fugate says if another disaster strikes, FEMA can transfer workers from other long-term disaster rebuilding, which he says is disruptive, "but it doesn't have the same urgency as the next disaster."

He says when he was administrator, "We had people down in Haiti during the the earthquake there. We had deployed people to CDC during Ebola. We were involved in the border." In fact, Fugate says, "this is actually a much smaller deployment than we did in the Obama administration."

Fugate says the biggest issue for FEMA's additional deployments is paying for them. During his tenure, FEMA was reimbursed for its assistance at the border by HHS, and that the CDC paid for FEMA's help with Ebola.

FEMA did not respond to a request for a comment.

Meanwhile, President Biden this week declared a major disaster in Kentucky because of severe storms there in February, making it eligible for federal assistance and serving as another reminder of the day-to-day role FEMA plays.

The AFGE's Reaves calls FEMA "the closest thing in the federal government to the Red Cross," adding, "You can really make a difference and you're really making a difference in people's lives on the worst day of their life. And that's really our mission."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.