FEMA, Racing to Provide Virus Relief, Is Running Short on Front-Line Staff

FEMA has been trying to fill the void by bringing on new employees in a hotel ballroom adjacent to its headquarters. The agency is currently setting up another planning center a couple blocks away from its headquarters, called the National Response Coordination Center 2.0, where planning for responses for earthquakes, hurricanes and other flooding will take place, according to the administration official with knowledge of FEMA’s operations.

Staffing that new center will be a struggle, the official said.

The official also said FEMA had halted the development of a major recruiting initiative this year, called “Harness,” after a series of earthquakes in Puerto Rico and then the coronavirus outbreak. The program involved reaching out to colleges and communities to fill staffing shortages to prepare for hurricane season.

Now senior officials at FEMA are concerned about their available resources in the coming months. Typically, a percentage of the work force drops away as the year progresses, given that the jobs are stressful and high-intensity, the official said, and that is expected to happen again this year.

And this year, with the added risk of viral infection to agency workers, the intensity of the work has heightened.

Some staff members have been pulled away from the preparedness wing of FEMA to work on the various task forces designed by the White House. “It’s all hands on deck,” the administration official said, adding that even people who work in such unrelated areas as flood insurance are being pulled into the Covid-19 response.

To supplement staffing shortages, FEMA was also planning on requesting assistance from the Coast Guard, according to the senior official. But the coronavirus outbreak also presented unique challenges: the prospect of potential staffers needing to quarantine in their homes.

“It’s national scope. We’ve had serious regional impact but not a single national impact like this,” said Michael Chertoff, who served as Homeland Security secretary under President Geoge W. Bush. “But secondly because of the contagion issue it creates and issues for caregivers themselves and helpers themselves.”

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