FEMA 'Tapped Out' from Too Many 'Unprecedented' Disasters

Department of Homeland Security personnel deliver supplies in Guayama, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

WASHINGTON – FEMA Administrator Brock Long said recently that his agency is “tapped out,” as the agency’s supplemental request for disaster relief topped $65 billion.

While speaking before Congress, Long said that the agency is dealing with an infrastructure system in Puerto Rico that was severely neglected long before the 2017 hurricane season.

Since Aug. 25, FEMA has received about $42 billion to help deal with the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, and October wildfires in California, which Long described as “one of the most disturbing events” he’s ever seen. FEMA requested an additional $23.5 billion as it works to address 31 disasters in more than 20 jurisdictions across the U.S.

“Unprecedented” is a word that doesn’t do this hurricane season justice, Long said. The four major disasters impacted an estimated 25 million people, and in a 97-day period FEMA funneled about five million people into its individual assistance program. That second figure is greater than hurricanes Sandy, Katrina, Wilma and Rita combined, Long said.

“My staff is tapped out,” Long told the House Appropriations Committee. “They work around the clock and bust their rear ends every day to help those who are in need, and we’re doing the best that we can do in trying to move as quick as we can.”

Long said that it’s time for the federal government to rethink what FEMA can “adequately handle” during an emergency, while weighing local and state resources. In Puerto Rico, for instance, he said that FEMA has been trying to figure out what it’s responsible for in terms of rebuilding infrastructure that had major issues long before the storm season.

In May, Puerto Rico filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, disclosing about $73 billion in debt. The government is currently attempting to manage the crisis under Title III of state law known as PROMESA, which involves a court-directed restructuring process.

“In Puerto Rico, we’re running into so many deferred maintenance issues in regards to the entire infrastructure and antiquated systems that I don’t think you can put it back to a pre-disaster condition,” Long said, suggesting that with FEMA’s work the power grid will be in better shape than before the storm.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) said that Puerto Rico raises an important policy question: How much is the rest of the country going to have to pay for neglected Puerto Rican infrastructure that is far worse than any other state?

“It looks like the lesson from Puerto Rico is that we kind of pulled the bandage off,” Harris said. “What we kind of discovered is that the infrastructure has been neglected for far longer and to a far greater extent than we even imagined when we passed the PROMESA Act.”

Long noted that the latest supplemental request includes special requests so that Puerto Rico can rebuild in a way that will make it stronger and more resilient in the future.

Long explained that he has hundreds of questions that need to be answered in terms of where FEMA’s responsibility should rest after a disaster. For one, he questioned whether FEMA should be responsible for housing disaster victims, when the organization is not designed as a housing authority. He said that housing is the “most difficult mission ahead of us.” He added that FEMA is also not designed to be the first and only responder in the event of a disaster, yet that’s the situation in many cases.

“Let’s hit the reset button,” Long said, while calling on the entire country, not just FEMA, to figure out how to become more resilient in the future.

The 2017 hurricane season, which ended on Thursday, represented a tenfold increase in terms of cost compared to 2016. During Hurricane Harvey alone, 80,000 people in Texas were relocated to hotels.