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As Busy Hurricane Season Continues, And Wildfires Rage, FEMA Leader Says 'Our Staff Is Ready'

Jenny Staletovich
The 2021 Atlantic hurricane season is again forecast to be above average, with 8 named storms so far this season.

With the pandemic expanding, wildfires raging in the west, hurricane season underway and the Surfside building collapse, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has its hands full this year.

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FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell visited the National Hurricane Center in Miami Tuesday and spoke with WLRN about how the agency is handling multiple emergencies.

Below is an edited version of their conversation.

WLRN: Will FEMA be responding to the earthquakes in Haiti?

CRISWELL: So FEMA's role is really to support domestic response. USAID [United States Agency for International Development] is the lead federal agency in support of that response. We do have two urban search-and-rescue teams that are authorized to travel internationally to support response, and they are supporting USAID in their efforts.

FEMA did go in 2010. It was a much worse situation than what we're seeing this year. But again, USAID is the lead federal agency.

FEMA is juggling many emergencies between the pandemic, recovery from hurricanes, and Surfside here in Florida. I'm wondering about your ability to continue juggling ongoing emergencies.

FEMA's no stranger to having multiple events. We've seen this every year that we've had either multiple hurricanes, record wildfire seasons, the tragic incident that we saw this year in Surfside. Our staff is ready. They've been working really hard, absolutely, over the COVID-19 response as well as the hurricanes and the wildfires. But we've given them some rest. We've got them reset and we are ready for this hurricane season.

There was a lot of turnover in 2020 [at FEMA]. How is your staffing?

I don't think that we've had a ton of turnover since 2020. I just came in in April, but our staffing is good. So we've got more than enough staff ready to respond to this hurricane season. Again, they had been deployed quite a bit over the last several years, but right now we look like we're in really good shape going into the peak of this hurricane season.

Do you think the time it's taking for people to get assistance is working or would you like to see it sped up?

Some of our assistance gets out very quickly. For individuals that might need to show additional documentation, sometimes that does take a little bit longer. But we've actually worked really hard over this summer to get ready for this hurricane season to try to speed that process up. And I think that we'll see some improvements, but we're always trying to improve.

With these ongoing busy hurricane seasons, is there a need for expansion [at the National Hurricane Center]? It just feels like they're just up against the wall every season.

We are seeing more hurricanes. We're seeing more storms. Every year, we're seeing more wildfires. As we see these impacts from the changing climate, we're going to have to make sure that we are prepared to continue to respond, to forecast and monitor.

And the partnership that we have with Director [Ken] Graham here at the Hurricane Center is really critical as we work jointly together to make sure our states are ready. They understand what's coming and that we can work to make sure that they're ready to respond.