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‘Not designed to be America’s 911’: A beleaguered FEMA adds Afghan resettlement to workload

WASHINGTON — Federal Emergency Management Agency officials expect that they will soon be drawn deeper into the nationwide effort to resettle Afghan refugees, adding another complex challenge to a crushing shower of disasters that has cascaded down on the beleaguered agency over the last 18 months.

The White House recently named Bob Fenton, the agency’s former acting administrator and head of its Region 9 office, to lead the Homeland Security Department’s resettlement task force. Fenton has begun to stock the task force with FEMA colleagues, and the agency — which is already managing Covid-19 vaccinations at the Virginia refugee processing center — is preparing to take on more duties.

“We’re having meetings tracking the activity” of the Biden administration’s Afghan resettlement process, said a veteran FEMA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. “They want FEMA involved.”

Aug. 26, 202104:55

That’s in addition to the response to Covid-19, raging wildfires in the West and Hurricane Ida, which ravaged the Gulf Coast and flooded New York and New Jersey.

FEMA is designed to marshal the government’s disaster-aid resources a few states at a time. But since March 2020, when it took over from the Department of Health and Human Services as the lead agency for the pandemic, FEMA has been working around the clock on a set of emergencies that together affect every state. And it’s taking a toll.

“FEMA is stretched thin, relying on an overworked workforce,” said a second agency official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We were not designed to be America’s 911.”

When a hurricane hits the Gulf Coast or wildfires rage through Western states, FEMA mobilizes officials in the region, taps into sister agencies’ personnel and equipment, deploys a corps of reservists for relief and recovery efforts, and coordinates with state and local emergency management teams. Any single disaster can occupy thousands of workers and cost tens of billions of dollars over years in one area.

But for the past 18 months, FEMA has been operating under the unprecedented strain of managing a pandemic that affects all of its regions at once, coupled with the growing intensity and frequency of disasters like Hurricane Ida and the Dixie Fire, the second-largest wildfire in California history, which is continuing to spread. Its portfolio continues to include work related to long-past disasters, such as Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico in 2017.

In the past week, more than 1,100 of the agency’s employees have been deployed to Louisiana and Mississippi since Ida made landfall, according to FEMA, along with 5,200 members of the National Guard and nearly 200 medical providers and other staff members from the Department of Health and Human Services. More than 400 Army Corps of Engineers employees are working on damage assessments and other activities.

A few hundred more FEMA employees are deployed to Northeastern states that were flooded when the remnants of Ida dumped heavy rain.

Agency officials say they are also contending with a drain of expertise related to strict requirements for reservists that make it harder to recruit and retain high-quality workers.

“They’re adding numbers, but I don’t think they’re adding numbers of people with quality experience,” the first official said.

Sens. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, introduced legislation this year to prevent employers from firing workers who deploy temporarily as reservists for FEMA.

“This bipartisan bill will improve the retention of these highly skilled emergency responders while also strengthening the agency’s readiness to respond to major disasters,” Portman said in June. “It is not only the right thing to do but comes as our country is facing a record high number of disasters where these reservists are needed the most.”

In addition to Afghan resettlement, FEMA officials see the potential to be involved with setting up vaccination centers again for booster shots.

“It seems like there’s no rest,” the first official said.

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