The chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency says its employees have “battle fatigue,” having worked 12-hour shifts five days a week for the past six weeks in response to three major hurricanes.
FEMA Administrator Brock Long on Monday held a roundtable discussion about his agency’s efforts, describing coordination between the administration and dozens of federal partners as “herculean.”
This hurricane season, which tracks from June 1 to Nov. 30, has been one of the busiest on record and ranks at least in the top eight since records started in 1933, according to Weather.com. A total of nine hurricanes and 15 named storms have occurred, including the Category 5 tempests Harvey, Irma and Maria that ravaged Southeast Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Mr. Long has been on the job a little over three months. In that time, about 85 percent of the agency’s manpower has been deployed, he said, adding that anyone who’s left is tasked with “keeping the lights on” and continuing FEMA’s mission as the main grant provider of the Department of Homeland Security to support state emergency preparedness.
“FEMA is not a first responder. We’re not designed to be first responders,” he said. “We’re designed to support response and recovery operations. States and their governors are technically tasked with managing disaster response recovery and helping us set unified disaster objectives — and locals also have a major role in executing the plans.”
Mr. Long said he expects FEMA will be engaged in relief efforts in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico for years to come, but he added that discussions need to be had about a culture shift in preparing for disasters, both natural and human-made.
“It’s got to be a whole community, unified response, and that’s what we’ve been preaching,” he said. “Everybody has a role when it comes to a successful response.”
Before that can happen, thousands of employees are engaged in recovery efforts in all affected areas. One of the most pressing needs facing the agency is restoring power to Puerto Rico, which has recovered only about 14 percent of its electricity-generation capacity since Hurricane Maria wiped out the entire power grid on Sept. 20.
“The most difficult aspect was total silence when it comes to communications capability, the telecom being completely out. You can’t disseminate a message,” Mr. Long said, adding that relief workers have used loudspeakers and dropped leaflets to relay information.
Maria also destroyed sea ports and airports in the Caribbean, forcing delays in the delivery of federal aid, said Mr. Long, noting that first responders also became disaster victims.
Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite of the Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing the recovery and rebuilding efforts on Puerto Rico. One of the biggest challenges is rebuilding the electrical grid, whose power plants were described by the chief engineer as “very, very old.”
“They’ve had a lot of backlogged maintenance, and they’re not overly reliable,” Gen. Semonite said.
A temporary power plant has to be shipped to the island on a barge, the general said, adding that it will take about a month and a half to get the power plant up and running.
Meanwhile, communities are running on petroleum-powered generators while Army engineers rewire the island and replace hundreds of miles of downed power lines.
“It could be up [to] as many as a million [utility] poles,” Gen. Semonite said. “We’re still assessing how many of those were damaged.”