Coronavirus could be FEMA’s biggest disaster ever, and it threatens to swamp the agency

By NICK MIROFF | The Washington Post | Published: March 24, 2020

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WASHINGTON — The coronavirus pandemic has hit the Federal Emergency Management Agency with the most sprawling, complex crisis it has ever faced, a disaster that isn’t knocking down buildings or flooding streets but threatens to swamp the government with cascading breakdowns and supply shortages, current and former FEMA officials say.

President Donald Trump has placed FEMA in charge of coordinating the federal response to the outbreak, and while U.S. health authorities remain in the lead on the medical front of dealing with the virus, FEMA has been tasked with handling almost everything else.

The agency is uniquely qualified for that role, former FEMA leaders say, and its staff is well-prepared to meet the challenge after several busy years of hurricanes and wildfires. But there were signs this week that the agency has stumbled out of the gate, including the familiar sight of state governors pleading for faster federal relief, scenes reminiscent of the desperation that followed Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and other disasters for which FEMA’s response fell short.

William “Brock” Long, who led FEMA during the first two years of the Trump administration, said the agency’s staff is “the most battle-hardened” it has ever been, after the series of natural disasters it faced in 2017 and 2018, from Hurricane Maria to the Paradise Fire in California.

“FEMA is the right agency to handle the situation,” Long said. “They have the proper logistics management systems and the relationships in place through state and local governments to help communities overcome the gaps they’re facing to fight the spread of the virus and help victims.”

But Long acknowledged the coronavirus will be the “most complex disaster FEMA has ever faced.”

FEMA’s struggles with coronavirus were on display Tuesday morning. During an interview with CNN, FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor unexpectedly announced that the Trump administration had invoked its authority for the first time under the Defense Production Act, compelling private companies to make 60,000 coronavirus test kits. Gaynor’s disclosure came shortly after Trump said the administration did not yet need to wield those powers, and the FEMA leader did not answer questions about who would manufacture the tests or whether more government-ordered production would follow.

Other Trump administration officials were blindsided by Gaynor’s announcement, and FEMA officials did not respond immediately to requests to clarify Gaynor’s statements. There was no information available on FEMA’s website, which, as of Tuesday, continues to say that FEMA is playing a supporting role to the Department of Health and Human Services, calling HHS the “lead federal agency,” even though the White House Task Force put FEMA in charge last week.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday issued a desperate appeal to FEMA for 30,000 ventilators because he said the number of new cases of infection is doubling every three days. The agency had provided only 400 so far, the governor said. “Where are the ventilators? Where are they?” Cuomo said of the machines needed to sustain life among infected patients who can no longer breathe on their own.

“I need the ventilators in 14 days. Only the federal government has that power,” he said, pressing the administration to make more aggressive use of its DPA authorities.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, said the state has gone on the open market across the country and across the world trying to buy 1 billion gloves, 500 million masks and 200 million shields, and that it is using its enormous buying power and supply chains, including chartering flights from China to import the gear.

“States like California that are uniquely positioned to make large purchases and get the volume discounts that are necessary creates a crowding out of the market that hurts the smaller states,” Newsome said. “It’s incumbent to begin the process of centralizing the procurement.”

Vice President Mike Pence said 4,000 additional ventilators will reach New York by Wednesday, and Trump said Monday that FEMA plans to begin shipping 8 million N95 respiratory masks and 13 million surgical masks to state governments soon.

Cuomo’s desperation points to a nightmare scenario for FEMA. If the pandemic’s spread through New York City is followed by significant outbreaks in other large American cities, the agency will be facing a panoramic crisis across the entire country as the U.S. heads into spring flood season, with the potential for hurricanes and wildfires to follow.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual spring flood outlook, released last week, found that more than a third of the U.S. is at risk of flooding this year. Communities in the northern plains and the upper Midwest are threatened, with 1.2 million people across five states forecast to experience major flooding that inundates homes and turns roads into rivers.

Olivia Dorothy, director for the Upper Mississippi River Basin at the nonprofit American Rivers, said many Midwestern flood-defense systems are entirely dependent on volunteers, who likely will be too sick or too scared to come out to build sandbag bulwarks or to help evacuate neighbors.

“All of us can say we have planned to the extent we can understand what is going on. But we don’t know what is going on,” Phil Stang, mayor of Kimmswick, Mo., said last week. “We just hold our breath and pray.”

Congressional reports that evaluated the agency’s responses to the hurricanes and wildfires in 2017 and 2018 raised concerns about staffing shortages and a potential lack of FEMA reservists. As of this week, several thousand reservists have yet to be activated fully in response to the coronavirus outbreak, but former FEMA officials said it would be a mistake to view that as a lack of urgency or preparation.

The response to the pandemic won’t be comparable to a hurricane, a flood or another natural disaster, said W. Craig Fugate, who ran FEMA under President Obama.

In those scenarios, FEMA typically works to relocate victims from the disaster-affected areas to places where they can get help, then supports reconstruction and rebuilding efforts that often include costly damage to critical infrastructure such as bridges, highways and levees.

Coronavirus is very different, Fugate said, and FEMA is right to use discretion before moving its crisis response teams around the country just for the sake of deploying personnel. The agency has a network of 10 regional offices, and given that every region of the U.S. will be affected, there is no clear need yet for a major deployment.

“Where are you going to send them?” Fugate asked. “People are a vector. You start moving people, you’re moving vectors.”

Fugate said the pandemic will be “the most challenging event” the agency will face, with conditions changing rapidly and “no sign that any state will get through this without significant impact.”

FEMA officials said the teams stand at the ready if state governors request them.

Such requests will be central to FEMA’s role and will go through FEMA’s National Response Coordination Center in Washington, current and former officials say. FEMA will field the requests and then will channel resources and supplies to areas hit hardest by the outbreak.

The agency also will help direct agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers, which can help set up emergency medical infrastructure, and the Department of Transportation, which can help support supply chains.

Trump also has approved major disaster declarations for New York, Washington state and California, with others expected to follow, marking the first time that designation has been used for a pandemic. The declaration allows states to access FEMA’s $40 billion Disaster Relief Fund.

Gaynor said state governors who request federal assistance through FEMA will remain in charge of where and how those assets are distributed.

“They’ll put it to best use and where they will have the most effects,” he said during a White House Task Force briefing Sunday. “It’s a request from the state to the federal government for a certain asset. And, those assets — the governor can use it as he or she sees fit.”

Some former FEMA officials said the direct costs to the agency for the pandemic response might not end up being as high as other events, such as Hurricane Maria, given that the biggest expenses for natural disasters are typically infrastructure repairs.

Coronavirus will be more a challenge of coordination and resource allocation.

“FEMA is in the best position to coordinate the government’s response and to meet the demands of this disaster, but it will require a strong and perhaps unprecedented partnership with all levels of government and the private sector,” said Dan Kaniewski, who stepped down earlier this year as FEMA’s second-in-command.

“A disaster on this scale will challenge any federal agency or organization,” Kaniewski said. “But if not FEMA, then who?”

The Washington Post’s Sarah Kaplan contributed to this report.

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