FEMA scrambles to hire response force as hurricane season looms

FEMA scrambles to hire response force as hurricane season looms
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The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is understaffed and facing unreliable workers as the agency prepares for the 2018 hurricane season, according to an internal memo obtained by Reuters.

In the memo from FEMA chief Brock Long to agency personnel, officials are called on to mobilize every member of FEMA's hundreds-strong force of reservists to prepare for cleanup and evacuation assistance for storm responses this year.

Documents obtained by the news service show that FEMA is understaffed by as much as 26 percent when it comes to disaster response, and a statement from agency officials confirmed that as many as one out of 12 did not respond to requests for mobilization last year in response to hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

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“We didn’t even hear from them,” Patrick Hernandez, director of FEMA’s disaster workforce, told Reuters. “We need to get people in here who understand the system and adhere to the protocols.”

Other officials told Reuters that high turnover within FEMA led to many of the dispatched officials being unfamiliar with how the agency does business.

“They had no knowledge of the system. They had no knowledge about how to do anything but fill out forms,” Junior Shelton, mayor of Central, La., told Reuters of FEMA's staff assigned to his town's recovery efforts. “We’re still sitting around waiting for that money to get here.”

Staffing levels reported by Reuters show that FEMA faces hundreds of job openings across its entire agency, including large deficiencies in the numbers of the agency's external affairs, disability integration and equal rights specialists.

Last year's recovery efforts, which took place in Texas, Louisiana, Puerto Rico and Florida, stretched the agency thin, and as a result, few employees are ready for mobilization today.

According to Reuters, just 13 percent of FEMA staff who specialize in directing federal aid to cleanup efforts are currently available for mobilization. Former FEMA workers told the news service that the agency's lack of readiness in 2018 is frightening.

“That’s a very low number, and that would be very scary going into more disasters,” said Elizabeth Zimmerman, a former senior official at FEMA.

Hernandez fired back, however, arguing that FEMA's staffing issues have yet to affect the agency's ability to deliver aid.

“I would not agree with that statement wholeheartedly," Hernandez told Reuters.

Earlier this year, the agency's inspector general directed FEMA to remove about a dozen positive evaluations of the agency's work under the Obama administration, saying they failed to met standards set by the Department of Homeland Security.