Just as Congress finally passed a $19B disaster relief law last week, then this news from Congress’ investigatory arm — The General Accounting Office — which issued a report stating, according to E&E News,that the Federal Emergency Management Agency “failed to answer 2.3 million phone calls to its disaster assistance helpline during an eight-week period in 2017 when Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria struck and caused thousands of deaths.”
But That’s Not All: The report has great timing — just as we head into wildfire and hurricane season, and while FEMA still has no permanent Administrator, FEMA was also accused earlier this year of mishandling highly sensitive personal data belonging to 2.3 million people who needed hotel lodging in 2017 as a result of the disasters that year. To make matters worse, yesterday during a hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee, acting FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor revealed that his agency is “short a few thousand employees” just as hurricane season is beginning in the Atlantic.
Where Do We Go From Here?: FEMA had to admit it messed up big time on the data breach but the public needs to know what the agency will do to prevent breaches like this in the future. There are a lot of questions FEMA has to answer so that Americans can feel confident that they will be protected after natural disasters strike, today’s hearing didn’t provide many answers. Chris Currie, who directs the Homeland Security and Justice Division for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) suggested that FEMA perform a gap analysis to begin restoring public trust and better understanding its own practices.
Why This Matters: FEMA’s mission is to help Americans before, during, and after natural disasters and currently the agency is at a diminished capacity to offer that help. Climate change is making natural disasters worse and more frequent and the people who will bear the brunt of storms and fires are already the most vulnerable members of our society. Groups like the poor and the elderly will need FEMA’s help the most and their calls for that help may go unanswered.