Biden says agencies will be ready for hurricane season. But a watchdog is warning of shortfalls

President Biden arrives at the White House on Wednesday. Biden received a briefing on interagency efforts to prepare for and respond to hurricanes this season at Joint Base Andrews before his return to the White House.

President Biden arrives at the White House on Wednesday. Biden received a briefing on interagency efforts to prepare for and respond to hurricanes this season at Joint Base Andrews before his return to the White House. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Federal responders will have what they need, president says. GAO says the government should do more to help local communities prepare.

President Biden on Wednesday promised his administration will be prepared to respond to “another tough season” of hurricanes, though the government’s top watchdog cautioned key federal agencies are not doing enough to help state and local governments prepare. 

After visiting aircraft that fly into and around hurricanes at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland and ahead of an interagency briefing on steps underway to prepare for hurricane season, Biden promised swift response and relief efforts. He highlighted the work underway by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Air Force and the Coast Guard, touting the “high-risk missions” those federal personnel take to predict and measure the intensity of hurricanes.  

“We expect another tough hurricane season,” Biden said, citing the climate change crisis. “And storms are going to be more intense, and we’re going to have shorter notice.” 

He vowed that “hurricane hunters and their partners” will “have what they need to get the job done.” The president also highlighted the steps his administration has taken to ensure those impacted by upcoming storms can quickly access federal assistance. 

Those efforts will “ensure that the piles of paperwork and the bureaucratic excuses we've used in the past, sometimes, don't stand in the way of getting to help the most disadvantaged communities as fast as possible,” Biden said. 

Ahead of Biden’s briefing, the Government Accountability Office told lawmakers during a hearing the government has a long way to go to maximize the assistance it is providing to local communities to get them better prepared for disasters.  The federal government has spent $315 billion on disaster assistance since 2015, GAO noted, and its fiscal exposure to climate change has been on the high-risk list since 2013.  

FEMA has made $1.4 billion of preparedness grants available to help state and local governments with disaster preparedness, though officials conceded to GAO it will not be enough to address the capability gaps jurisdictions have identified. It is taking some steps to address those gaps, however. The agency published a national preparedness report last year and will issue a review of risks and capability shortfalls in the coming months. It is developing a full assessment of the resources it will need to address national preparedness gaps, which it plans to complete by the end of the year. 

FEMA’s mitigation programs are difficult for state and local jurisdictions to navigate, GAO said, citing the length of complexity of the application process and the technical knowledge required to apply for grants. The emergency response agency is working to pre-calculate the benefits of certain mitigation efforts, such as equipping hospitals with additional generators, to take some of the burden off of applicants. 

GAO pressed the Biden administration to take steps to be more proactive in reducing risks from disasters, including by creating a federal entity to develop "authoritative climate change projections," improving integration of climate resilience efforts in the federal government and incentivizing local entities to better prepare for storms and wildfires. 

Lawmakers and stakeholders have also cautioned that FEMA has become overburdened in recent years, leading to a "mass exit" of employees. While the agency has added thousands of staff to its rolls, the additions were mostly to temporary and non-career positions. The permanent, full-time workforce has remained flat, leaving the employees increasingly strained and struggling to keep pace with its workload as disasters have become more frequent and severe. Its capacity to quickly deploy around the country and handle logistics has also led it to take on various other projects in recent administrations, such as helping with a surge of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, the resettling of Afghan evacuees and the COVID-19 pandemic response.

FEMA employees previously sounded the alarm on their lack of down time between deployments and the agency last year sought to bring employees home from pandemic-related assignments to allow them to rest before hurricane season. The recovery period was short lived, however, as President Biden was quickly forced to once again send out FEMA workers to help states deal with new waves of COVID-19 cases.

“There’s never been more pressure on the FEMA workforce and they’re tired,” Chris Currie, director of the Government Accountability Office's Homeland Security and Justice team, said at a congressional hearing in January. “The workforce structure has not been transformed and evolved to fit what we’re asking them to do right now.”

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