The Federal Emergency Management Agency is prepared for what has been predicted to be a tumultuous hurricane season while it conducts a “deep dive” into what staffing of the future is going to look like as the component operates at an “unrelenting” year-round pace, Administrator Deanne Criswell told lawmakers.
“The field of emergency management is at a pivotal moment in its history,” Criswell told lawmakers Tuesday at a hearing of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Recovery to examine FEMA’s FY 2023 budget request. “While our mission itself has not changed, our operating environment has.”
As of June 10, FEMA was managing 348 disasters — including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — when 10 years ago the agency managed an average of 108 disasters a year. “The changing climate is the biggest crisis facing our nation and makes natural disasters more frequent and more destructive,” Criswell added. “At the same time, structural inequities in our society are compounding the impacts of disasters for underserved communities.”
FEMA “aligned its budget request to support the three goals in our strategic plan,” beginning with instilling “equity as a foundation of emergency management.”
The agency has “already made important changes in how we provide assistance,” such as expanding the types of documentation that will be accepted and how the threshold for property losses to qualify for direct housing is calculated. “This resulted in more than 2,700 families receiving assistance who would not have been considered for direct housing in the past,” the administrator said. “That means over 2,700 families with a roof over their head, a bed to sleep in, and a stove to cook with.”
“We also know the more our workforce resembles the nation we serve, the better that we will serve it. We are adapting our recruiting efforts to reach individuals from underrepresented communities by partnering with organizations like historically black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions.”
Criswell stressed that FEMA “is not just a response and recovery agency” but must lead in climate resilience and hazard mitigation, investing further in the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program, the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, flood maps, and the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard.
“We think innovatively and shift our projects to those with community-wide impact,” she said. “And we must eliminate the barriers underserved communities face in seeking hazard mitigation assistance.”
FEMA is also focused on cultivating a culture of preparedness and addressing heightened demands on FEMA’s workforce and on the broader emergency management community, Criswell told lawmakers.
“While natural disasters are at the forefront of our discussions today, we cannot overlook our threats facing our nation, which FEMA has also been charged with helping to mitigate. Like natural disasters, terrorist attacks can occur at any time anywhere. We saw this earlier this year during a hostage standoff at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas,” she continued. “I visited the synagogue and spoke to the rabbi following the attack and he relayed to me … the importance of the nonprofit security grant program and how it helped to save lives. We are requesting $360 million for this program to continue this effort.”
Emphasizing that “the unrelenting pace of a year-round disaster cycle in crises places great demands on our FEMA workforce,” Criswell said the agency “must look out for the physical, the emotional, and the mental health of our workforce.”
Asked whether the workforce is adequately prepared for the hurricane season that NOAA has predicted to be above normal, Criswell replied, “I do believe that our workforce is prepared. We have one of the most dedicated workforces that I think you can find anywhere in the federal government and they are committed to our mission of helping people before, during, and after disasters. While we have seen the increase in the number of disasters, our team continues to look at ways that we can staff these events and not have an added strain on our members.”
“We are taking a look … now that we have more of this yearlong operational tempo instead of the peak that we have traditionally seen during hurricane season — what does the future staffing model need to look like? We’re doing a deep dive into that analysis so we can better plan and appropriate our staff for a yearlong response as we continue to go forward.”
Criswell said the CREW Act working its way through Congress, which would amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to provide certain employment rights to FEMA reservists, would be “the one thing that is going to really make a difference in our ability to staff disasters right now.”
“It is the majority of our staff that surge in when an incident happens to support those local communities,” she said of reservists. “What this act will do is give them USERRA protections. So reemployment protection, which means it’ll transform the way that we can recruit our reservist workforce, bring in specialties to come in and support those jurisdictions, even give us the opportunity to have more reservists that are right in the local community.”
Criswell noted to lawmakers that FEMA is “so reliant right now on our IT infrastructure in order to better support our communities after a disaster.”
“It has been an amazing resource as we continue to work to improve the way we’re delivering services that we can actually get funding out into the hands of survivors so much quicker,” she said. “And that includes then our grant modernization process as well. So when we’re talking about after disaster, we’ve made a lot of improvements. But we also need to make sure that the access to the work that we do before a disaster through our grant programs is also easier for our customers to be able to navigate.”
As a heat wave blankets much of the country, Criswell was asked about actions FEMA has been taking to address and mitigate the growing threat of extreme heat.
“We are very concerned about extreme heat and the heat that we’re continuing to see be exasperated by climate change. And we know that, as these heat domes continue to rise, the fatalities are going to continue to rise. And there are more fatalities every year from heat than any other natural disaster, and we also see secondary fatalities after disaster as a result of the heat,” the administrator replied.
“We monitor the heat conditions very closely. We work very closely with our partners at the National Weather Service and coordinate with our regional and state partners to help with their preparedness plans. We will continue to work with them to help them better understand what their risk is for heat,” she added. “We actually have a resilience analysis and planning tool that helps communities identify their vulnerable populations, and they can use this information to put better plans in place to support those populations if they are going to experience a heat emergency.”
Asked about what FEMA has done to ensure that communities are aware of Nonprofit Security Grants and other available funding, Criswell said the agency has increased stakeholder engagement and outreach through resilience programs and grant programs, along with conducting engagement through regional administrators and faith-based partnerships.
“They have done an extensive amount of outreach to help people understand ahead of time that this grant program is going to be available and that they can start to prepare now for that grant program,” she said. “And we’ve also increased and gave additional points to organizations that have never applied before. We want to give an incentive to nonprofit organizations that have not asked for this funding or received this funding, and give them additional points so it encourages more organizations to seek out this program and apply for assistance.”