President Donald Trump, facing a growing sense of fear amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, last week activated the nation’s leading disaster-relief authority, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
During a White House briefing on Wednesday, he said that FEMA had been mobilized and is working at its highest levels.
FEMA officials, since the weekend, have refused to provide a single concrete example of what the agency is doing or has done – beyond planning – to begin to help the nation’s public health system deal with the viral emergency.
"FEMA is the lead coordinating agency on behalf of HHS and the White House task force team, who are leading the" response, FEMA spokeswoman Elizabeth Litzow told ABC News. "As a result, FEMA will activate the National Response Coordination Center to a Level 1, which enables our agency to coordinate with our federal and non-governmental partners to support HHS and state, local, tribal and territorial governments as they respond to the pandemic."
In a series of phone calls and emails since Monday, ABC News asked repeatedly for any specifics FEMA could provide about its "support" and planning role.
Litzow said "FEMA’s role has been assisting HHS with planning, coordination, logistics, and outreach with supporting states to identify sites and operational requirements. Additionally, the administration is working with the private sector to develop a website Americans can visit to determine whether a test is needed and, if so, facilitate testing at a nearby location."
She added that the only specifics she could point to were financial-accounting measures associated with the Navy hospital ships that will be deployed to New York City and California.
Before taking any questions from reporters on Wednesday, Trump was emphatic about FEMA’s involvement.
"Last week, I signed an emergency declaration under the Stafford Act, which, as you know, we invoked previously and which activated FEMA's national response coordination center," Trump said during the White House press briefing. "FEMA now is fully engaged at the highest levels. Today, FEMA is activated in every region. We are at level 1, level 1 being the highest level, which we will work with and we have been working with FEMA."
Internally, FEMA has been operating for the last three or four weeks to prepare the agency for a presidential mobilization order, which came last Friday, a senior FEMA official told ABC News.
"We have a dedicated internal task force making sure we can keep people healthy," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We’re ready for whatever is next."
FEMA leadership has insisted repeatedly that they have been fulfilling the agency’s mandate but had to take a back seat to HHS because - unlike a hurricane or tornado - the coronavirus crisis is a public-health emergency. But FEMA is charged with logistical and relief support in order to ensure that HHS and its sister local health agencies can do their jobs.
Trump’s first FEMA administrator, Brock Long, who now leads Hagerty Consulting, and other experts told ABC News that FEMA could take a lead role including:
The senior FEMA official acknowledged that, even as local and state leaders were preparing their residents for the worst last week, FEMA had only then finally embarked on a stress test of its own computer network, which would be highly taxed once Trump ordered FEMA to deploy.
"We need the federal government to do a better job," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday. "States don’t have the capacity or the power to make up for the federal government. We’re doing the best we can but we need the federal government to step up."
John Cohen, a former acting undersecretary of Homeland Security who used to work closely with FEMA, said he has been concerned watching a lethargic national response to the pandemic and said he was surprised to see FEMA moving so slowly.
"FEMA has developed an emergency-planning and preparedness process that has been successfully used to deal with disasters for decades," said Cohen, now an ABC News contributor. "There’s real concern among emergency management officials that that process isn’t being used today to deal with the public health crisis."
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Faced with a virus that is moving faster than government can respond, governors have started reaching out to experts who might be able to help kick FEMA into gear.
James Lee Witt, who ran FEMA during President Bill Clinton’s term, told ABC News the governors of New York, Louisiana and Florida have called asking for his assistance.
Witt said his firm, AG Witt, is working to build call-in centers for drive-thru testing that could be up and running by the end of the week.
"We’ve got access to 25,000 FDA approved test kits, and in a few weeks, we will have access to 400,000," he said, adding his team "was able to secure 300,000 masks, 4 million gowns, pairs of gloves and thermometers, all the things that they needed right now" for a hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas.
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