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Democratic lawmakers ask how FEMA is planning to balance natural disasters, COVID-19 response

Democratic lawmakers ask how FEMA is planning to balance natural disasters, COVID-19 response

Democratic lawmakers are requesting that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) supply information on how it is planning to balance natural disasters and its COVID-19 response. 

A group of 80 Democrats, led by Rep. Jerry McNerneyGerlad (Jerry) Mark McNerneyIn defense of misinformation House Democrats want to silence opposing views, not 'fake news' Hillicon Valley: Biden signs order on chips | Hearing on media misinformation | Facebook's deal with Australia | CIA nominee on SolarWinds MORE (Calif.) and Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden defends Afghanistan withdrawal after pushback Scalise carries a milk carton saying Harris is 'missing' at the border Harris to visit Mexico and Guatemala 'soon' MORE (D-Calif.), sent a letter to FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor asking the agency to outline disaster preparation and recovery plans for COVID-19. 

The Democrats point to the fact that disaster season is approaching, specifically for flooding, wildfires and hurricanes, and to the tornadoes and storms in Louisiana and Mississippi that killed at least 17 people last week.

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The lawmakers expressed concern that FEMA’s resources are already thinned from its response to the COVID-19 crisis, making the agency unable to effectively respond to any natural disasters that occur at the same time. 

“While these are unprecedented times and your Agency is working diligently to lead the Federal government response to the pandemic, we know that a natural disaster could strike at any moment,” the letter reads. 

The Democrats added they worried about “inadequate staffing levels, sheltering procedures in a time of social distancing, and a global shortage of necessary protective gear.” 

“Addressing major disasters like these requires a highly coordinated response across all levels of government that will be greatly complicated by the COVID-19 national emergency, including the social distancing measures public health officials are recommending,” the letter added.  

The letter cites the hurricane and wildfire seasons of 2017 and 2018 as times when the country “saw an unprecedented volume of catastrophic disasters” and when the agency’s response was tested.  

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The lawmakers requested answers to 22 questions on the topic within two weeks.

Among the scores of Democrats who signed the letter are Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOn The Money: Weekly jobless claims fall to lowest level since lockdowns | Retail sales surge in March | Dow, S&P hit new records Ocasio-Cortez says she disagrees with holding up infrastructure over SALT Democrats battle over best path for Puerto Rico MORE (N.Y.), Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - CDC in limbo on J&J vax verdict; Rep. Brady retiring Democrats brace for new 'defund the police' attacks Bernie Sanders says he disagrees with Tlaib's call for 'no more police' MORE (Mich.), Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenCapitol Police watchdog paints damning picture of Jan. 6 failures Capitol Police watchdog issues report slamming 'deficiencies' before riot Lofgren says she's been briefed on 'disturbing' police report on riot MORE (Calif.) and Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaLawmakers demand justice for Adam Toledo: 'His hands were up. He was unarmed' Biden can make history on nuclear arms reductions Overnight Defense: Biden makes his Afghanistan decision MORE (Calif.).

A FEMA spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill that the agency's commitment to Americans "remains unchanged." The agency has 3,000 employees dedicated to COVID-19 response out of 20,000 employees "ready to respond to other emergencies" and still has $80 billion left in the Stafford Act fund, after obligating more than $5 billion for the coronavirus crisis, the statement read.

"It is imperative during this time that we are also prepared to respond to any additional incidents that may occur, while ensuring our continued response efforts to the COVID-19 pandemic remain uninterrupted," the spokesperson said. "To that end, FEMA is taking deliberate and proactive steps to safeguard our ability to augment and sustain our FEMA response operations in the midst of COVID-19, while in preparing for future unknown disasters."

The spokesperson said FEMA is working to potentially expand its incident support operations, increase the "cadre" of employees who work to support state, local, tribal and territorial partners and possibly hire recently retired annuitants.  

FEMA has found itself in uncharted territory as the lead agency responding to the pandemic by managing the national supply chain. 

Scientists predicted earlier this month that the 2020 hurricane season will bring more major hurricanes than usual.