The devastating paths of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey have stretched the Federal Emergency Management Agency to a point unlike any in recent memory as the country looks to recover from the damage caused by record-breaking winds and flooding across Florida, Southeast Texas and South Carolina, not to mention wildfires in the West.
The two storms have illustrated how the disaster agency — unable to be everywhere at once — has been forced to become more nimble. It has evolved from a command-and-control operation into coordinator that oversees and encourages help from outside groups, such as the private sector and nonprofits, and regular citizens in Houston who were called on to break out their canoes to help stranded neighbors when traditional search and rescue teams couldn’t reach them.
“You didn’t use to see that 10 to 15 years ago,” said Katie Fox, acting deputy administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Government folks have recognized that there is a huge amount of capability out there in the population. Engaging those folks is a huge help. It often used to be seen as a hindrance that you’d have to manage.”
As of Monday, more than 2,300 FEMA personnel have been deployed to Florida; 1,300 are part of search and rescue teams working on the ground with the state’s emergency management officials. They are among the more than 15,000 people on the ground (not counting National Guard troops) dedicated to Irma recovery who have been dispatched across the Southeast as well as to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
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Another 10,000 people are on the ground in Texas and Louisiana, continuing with recovery efforts following Harvey.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long has received high marks for his handling of the first major natural disasters to test the Trump administration. He has tried to reassure the public that the disaster agency is up to the task of responding to massive back-to-back hurricanes and anything that follows.
But the reality is the full impact of Irma has yet to be realized.
The storm slammed the west coast of Florida, but the aftershocks have been felt hundreds of miles away as officials report massive flooding on Florida’s east coast and north into South Carolina. The Defense Department announced Monday afternoon that an additional 10,000 people may need to be evacuated from Key West.
“The agency is being pushed to its limits right now with all these events,” said Gary Webb, chairman of emergency management and disaster science at the University of North Texas. “The reality is the federal government doesn’t have unlimited resources and capacity.”
Even before the hurricanes, FEMA was having to deal with more than 120 large wildfires in the West that have blanketed smoke across Oregon, Washington and California as well as Idaho and Montana.
Fox says the wildfires are a separate issue, noting that the crisis is handled by personnel with a different set of expertise. But she says back-to-back hurricanes have tested FEMA in challenging ways.
Some search and rescue teams arrived in Florida with just a day’s rest after searching for Harvey survivors.
“We’ve got more than 10,000 folks on the ground supporting Harvey. We’ve got 15,000 people in Irma,” Fox said.
“As you look at what a massive storm Irma was, being able to do search and rescue and set up disaster recovery centers to help people get on their feet after the storm, we’re certainly stretched a bit now,” she said.
In terms of money, Thomas Bossert, the White House homeland security adviser, said FEMA will have what it needs and promised there would be no break in their operations.
“Right now we have plenty of resources to get through this,” Bossert said. “That was the nature of the appropriation that we saw, and the second appropriation that we will see at the end of this month.”
Fox emphasized the recovery is a long process, one that is not close to its end.
“The back-to-back nature of the storms has made rest challenging, but the administrator has said from the beginning — that from Harvey — that this is going to be a marathon,” Fox said.
Anita Kumar contributed.