FEMA staffing stretched thin as Atlantic storm season intensifies

The agency says the staffing shortage is not affecting its Dorian response.

As Puerto Rico prepares for a major test of its still-damaged infrastructure almost two years after Hurricane Maria, questions remain about FEMA's ability to deal with Dorian and other new storms given record vacancies at the agency.

FEMA remains without a permanent leader after Brock Long announced his resignation in February. Pete Gaynor has been leading the agency in an acting role as President Donald Trump's permanent nominee, Jeffrey Byard, remains unconfirmed. Unlike some Trump nominees, Byard's nomination shows no sign of problems, but still awaits a full floor vote by the Senate.

"FEMA is taking all possible preparatory actions in anticipation of impacts, including the forward deployment of personnel," according to an agency spokesperson.

President Trump on Tuesday signed an emergency aid declaration for Puerto Rico and on Wednesday tweeted that "FEMA and all others are ready" and "will do a great job" while at the same time taking yet another swipe at San Juan's Democratic mayor.

Though the agency has acknowledged a staffing shortage, it remains confident in its ability to respond to the impact of the storms this hurricane season.

But the concern from lawmakers, scarred by the tragic response to Maria, has them doubting FEMA's readiness.

"The fact remains that FEMA and its federal partners were not ready to respond to consecutive major storms in 2017," House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said at a FEMA oversight hearing in June. "Without having the right people in place, trained, and ready to respond, FEMA cannot carry out its mission."

Gaynor told lawmakers that FEMA is ready to respond to the impact of any potential storms that come out of this year’s hurricane season. But he indicated to Thompson that the agency could use more help.

"It has been a struggle for FEMA to make sure that we have enough disaster responders in reserve," Gaynor said. "We’re probably short a few thousand employees."

The Trump administration recently told Congress recently that it plans to start shuffling $271 million around in its Homeland Security budget so that it can cover the cost of detaining and transporting more undocumented migrants. FEMA, one of the affected agencies, would stand to lose $155 million, but the agency is pushing back on the notion that they'd be without the necessary financial resources heading into the peak of hurricane season.

"Based on DHS and FEMA’s review of historical emergency spending from the DRF Base account, this amount will be sufficient to support operational needs and will not impact ongoing long-term recovery efforts across the country," said a FEMA spokesperson.

Even as preparation for the current crop of storms is underway, there's concern about how ready the government will be for future storms.

An internal agency report following the 2017 hurricane season found that "FEMA’s incident workforce is historically over-committed to smaller disasters, leaving a fraction of the agency’s capacity to prepare for and respond to complex catastrophes and national security emergencies."

FEMA’s workforce is comprised of nearly 14,000 employees with roughly 45% of employees working in response and recovery and in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the agency has aggressively taken initiative to start moving staff into areas well in advance of a tropical storm or hurricane threat.

FEMA began flying in resources and staffing to Puerto Rico for several days before Tropical Storm Dorian began posing a threat to the island. But even still, the agency's acting administrator in an interview with ABC News issued a warning to anyone in the path of a storm this hurricane season.

"FEMA will not make you whole," he said. "But we highly encourage flood insurance because that will get you back to normal faster. That investment in flood insurance is the best defense you can make for yourself and your family."