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FEMA and California wildfires: A report card

The sun appears red through a haze of wildfire smoke in California. (Photo: Neil Lockhart)

Nearly a year after the 2017 California wildfires hit the north and south state, the report card on FEMA—the Federal Emergency Management Agency—is in.

The Sept. 4 analysis by the U.S. Government Accountability Office detailing FEMA’s performance credited FEMA with fulfilling its own disaster readiness goals, but says that wasn’t enough for the agency to be sufficiently prepared to deal with the horrific fires that engulfed parts of the state.

FEMA wasn’t alone: California also wasn’t prepared for the volume of debris created by the wildfires, the study noted. Getting rid of debris following a disaster is a top priority.

Although FEMA helped in smoothing out state-federal jurisdictional issues, local officials complained that contracting requirements “created recovery challenges due to the lack of flexibility.

“In northern California alone, the wildfires created the largest amount of debris since the 1906 earthquake,” according to the GAO study, “2017 Hurricanes and Wildfires: Initial Observations on the Federal Response and Key Recovery Challenges.”

“[T]he state’s primary debris contractor did not have the capacity to handle all of the debris removal,” the report said, so FEMA coordinated with the California Office of Emergency Services and brought in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

There was no immediate word from the Trump administration on the GAO’s FEMA report.

The blazes included the wine country fires in the fall, which killed at least 44 people and caused $14.5 billion in damage across six northern California counties—Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Mendocino, Butte and Solano—including some $11 billion worth of insured losses.

When a natural disaster hits, FEMA is the third responder. The first responsibility to act lies with the cities and counties where the disaster takes place. If the disaster is too much for a locality to handle, the state is called for help. If the state sees an outsized problem, it declares a state of emergency and appeals to the federal government for assistance. If the feds see an emergency, FEMA helps deal with damage done by the disaster.

Although FEMA helped in smoothing out state-federal jurisdictional issues, local officials complained that contracting requirements “created recovery challenges due to the lack of flexibility,” the report noted. Also, some contracts did not have specific provisions to remove fire debris such as “ash debris, asbestos, and other toxic chemicals,” the GAO faulted FEMA’s lack of experience in requesting help from the Corps of Engineers for the debris-removal delays.

Following the 2017 wildfires, FEMA received 25,425 registrations for interim housing. Of those requests, only 866 were fulfilled.

Kelly Huston, the deputy director of the state OES, disputes the GAO’s finding that FEMA was responsible for any disaster-relief delays.

Huston credited FEMA with good advance preparations and said that there were “No problems getting what we needed.” He also said FEMA anticipated OES’s needs by “coming through with things we didn’t know we needed.”

Huston credits Robert J. Fenton, FEMA’s regional administrator, for working well with the state, and FEMA for acting as the “single point of coordination.”

Post-disaster housing was also a major issue.

Following the 2017 wildfires, FEMA received 25,425 registrations for interim housing. Of those requests, only 866 were fulfilled. One-hundred-fifty-four requests resulted in temporary shelter in a trailer or manufactured home, 94 requests received a “direct lease” from FEMA for shelter, and 618 requests resulted in “transitional shelter assistance.”

FEMA also was understaffed in California, and many FEMA personal who came to help were not “qualified” to do the job they were assigned, according to the GAO.

The GAO report does not comment on FEMA’s responsibility for this response or how many people who applied for housing found it through other means or refused it when offered.

However, the report does note a big challenge in finding affordable, temporary housing—a critical issue in California, apart from disasters.

Even before the 2017 disasters, California had critical housing shortages. According to FEMA officials, Sonoma County had 144 available housing units prior to the wildfires, which burned 5,098 homes in Sonoma and another 5,031 homes in Mendocino County, creating a large housing deficit. Locating adequate housing subsequent to the disasters has been a major challenge, according to state officials. They reported that local ordinances have compounded the complexity of finding housing solutions, and local officials navigate alterations to rules for temporary situations (e.g., prohibiting mobile homes in certain areas).

FEMA also was understaffed in California, and many FEMA personal who came to help were not “qualified” to do the job they were assigned, according to the GAO.

While California experienced 36 wildfires from June 2017 through September 2017, most of them were in low-population rural areas. California did not need FEMA’s help. That was fortunate because FEMA was very busy: From Aug. 29 to Oct. 9, Puerto Rico and the Southeastern U.S. were hit by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate.

The storms strapped the agency’s personnel. By FEMA’s own analyses, as of Sept. 1, 2017, the agency “faced a staff shortage of 37 percent.” FEMA sought to address the shortage by hiring new people and plugging in current employees into positions that they weren’t trained for. As a result, the GAO said, “54 percent of staff were serving in a capacity in which they did not hold the title of ‘Qualified.’”

Huston, however, told Capitol Weekly that his agency did not feel the effects of FEMA’s personnel shortage or its workers’ lack of qualifications.

In August of this year, amid another intense fire season, Gov. Jerry Brown predicted that “over a decade or so we will have more fire, more destructive fire, more billions that will have to be spent on it. All that is the new normal that we will have to face.”

In normal times, an expected response to this “new normal” would be to increase FEMA’s funding.

However, these are not normal times.

President Donald Trump’s 2018 federal budget called for $876 million worth of cuts to FEMA’s state and local grant programs for disaster preparedness and response, local pre-disaster mitigation, and the National Flood Insurance Program’s Flood Hazard Mapping and Risk Analysis Program. However, the cuts were largely opposed and Congress passed a bipartisan, $90 billion aid package to help the victims of 2017’s disasters.

Trump’s latest spending plan calls for a 50 percent cut in FEMA’s grants to state and local jurisdictions, including the elimination of the Emergency Food and Shelter Program and the Flood Hazard Mapping and Risk Analysis Program.

 

 


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