The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said Wednesday that the disaster aid and recovery agency is still significantly understaffed, nearly two years after recovery efforts during the devastating 2017 hurricane season were hindered by a lack of staffing.
In a hearing June 12, acting FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor told the House Committee on Homeland Security that the agency is prepared and ready to tackle any potential disasters in coming months. But Gaynor’s exchange grew heated as Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) pressed the FEMA head about staffing levels.
“Are you fully staffed?” Thompson asked repeatedly. Ultimately, Gaynor asserted that the agency’s full-time staffing quota has been met, but that the agency is significantly understaffed with regards to the part-time employees who are critical to addressing disasters and wide-scale crises.
“It has been a struggle for FEMA to make sure that we have enough disaster responders,” Gaynor said, acknowledging that “we’re probably short a few thousand employees.”
That acknowledgement comes with Atlantic hurricane season underway as of this month, while wildfires are once again surging in the western United States. Meanwhile, extreme flooding across the Midwest and parts of the South is imperiling local communities and economies.
Despite extreme events becoming more intense with climate change, FEMA has struggled under Trump with dramatic staffing shortages that remain unresolved.
“How many total people does FEMA need?” asked another speaker, Chris Currie, who directs the Homeland Security and Justice Division for the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Currie added that the number is likely far more than the agency currently has.
“What we’ve said over the years is that FEMA needs to do a gap analysis… and I’m not sure that that’s been done,” Currie continued, pushing in favor of government efforts to assess what FEMA actually needs to be effective.
FEMA has long been a source of ire throughout many presidencies, often taking the blame for a broader lack of government preparation for crises like Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But under the Trump administration, the agency has bled staff at every level. Gaynor himself is an acting administrator, after former FEMA Administrator Brock Long departed earlier this year following spending controversies.
While the agency continues to suffer, disasters are adding up. Heavy flooding and tornadoes have upended parts of the Midwest over the past few months. Meanwhile, last year’s wildfire season left states like California devastated — and fires are already raging this year.
Much of the criticism aimed at FEMA, however, involves hurricane recovery. Severe storms in 2017 and 2018 left numerous areas devastated, including many parts of the Southeast, Texas, and territories including Puerto Rico. In addressing Hurricane Maria — which hit Puerto Rico in September 2017 — the agency was particularly ill-prepared. In an internal 2018 report, FEMA acknowledged that its staff was around 5,000 people short when that hurricane hit.
“The response to the  hurricanes demonstrated the need for emergency managers at all levels to improve collaboration with the critical infrastructure sectors,” said former FEMA Administrator Long.
Catastrophic hurricanes struck again the following year. Both Hurricanes Michael and Florence upended communities from Florida to North Carolina in 2018. Those areas have struggled to recover; impacted communities and aid workers told ThinkProgress that FEMA’s efforts have been insufficient in addressing the crises. In parts of Texas recovering from Hurricane Harvey, as in virtually all of Puerto Rico, that narrative is much the same.
Staffing isn’t the only issue plaguing FEMA. Climate scientists have repeatedly connected global warming to the uptick in disasters across the country, noting that rising temperatures help increase and worsen major storms. But under the Trump administration, mentions of climate change have disappeared from agency reports and assessments.
Gaynor himself declined to answer Wednesday whether he believed in climate change, asserting instead that FEMA is prepared for any potential issue.
“We are an ‘all hazards’ agency… that’s how we approach it,” he said.
When asked repeatedly whether his agency was prepared for future crises, Gaynor stated, “I think we have all the tools necessary.”
Lizzie Litzow, FEMA press secretary, told ThinkProgress that while it can sometimes be difficult to find workers for what can be challenging or technically-skilled positions, the agency continues to actively recruit, stating that it has been able to “steadily increase hiring” over the years.
“The scale of recovery from historic disasters in 2017-2018 as well as recent flooding and storms,” she added, “continues to generate considerable demands for additional skilled emergency managers.”
This article has been updated to include comment from FEMA.