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FEMA Looks To Hire 2,000 More People As It Responds To Long List Of Disasters


Brock Long, chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is in California today. He's visiting Sacramento, Sonoma and Napa to see for himself the destruction the wildfires have caused. Those fires are among some 22 natural disasters that FEMA says it is responding to. The agency is so strained, it's looking to hire temporary employees, as NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: With wildfires in California and hurricanes the past few months in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Puerto Rico and elsewhere, it's been a busy season for FEMA. And Mike Sprayberry, president of the National Emergency Management Association, says one thing is clear.

MIKE SPRAYBERRY: Make no mistake - FEMA's stretched very thin right now.

NAYLOR: To deal with all of the disasters this year, as well as processing claims from storms past, FEMA has just about 5,000 employees, 85 percent of whom, FEMA says, are now in the field. Patrick Roberts, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech, says FEMA is more an insurance agency than a first responder.

PATRICK ROBERTS: FEMA itself is too small to be the cavalry to respond to all of these disasters. That's not its mission, and it doesn't have the capacity. FEMA at its best, with excellent leadership, can coordinate and help lead the response.

NAYLOR: Roberts says FEMA needs and has utilized the resources of the military, including the National Guard, along with other agencies in the Department of Homeland Security like the Coast Guard to carry out the logistics of recovery and to deliver supplies. And it counts on state and local emergency management agencies. Roberts says FEMA has learned from its experiences with previous disasters. But the large number this year, he says, does pose a challenge.

ROBERTS: There's a problem with coordinating relief and recovery to all these different disasters going on. The thing that FEMA has going in its favor is that it's moved to a more regional system. So it has resources pre-positioned, say, in the San Francisco Bay area that can go out to fire victims. They can send water, supply shelter out to fire victims. And it's not taking anything away from hurricane victims in the Southeast or in Puerto Rico.

NAYLOR: FEMA wants to hire as many as 2,000 local people to help respond to individual recovery efforts. According to the agency, it's seeking everything from civil engineers to historic preservation specialists to crisis counselors and nurses. It held a job fair in Puerto Rico last week. The temporary positions could last for as long as a year. Mike Sprayberry, who is emergency management director for North Carolina, says there are also disaster reservists to call on. And the states, he says, are pitching in to help each other as part of an emergency management assistance compact.

SPRAYBERRY: I've got 10 people down in Puerto Rico. Again, we're not the only ones. There's a lot of folks that are helping out. It's very efficient. And I think it's the best of America and what we have to give.

ROBERTS: Sprayberry says FEMA may need to expand if the number of disasters it's called on to respond to keeps growing, as some believe is possible with the effects of climate change. The House last week, meanwhile, approved another $36.5 billion in emergency relief for Puerto Rico and other areas hit by disasters. The Senate is expected to act on the package soon. That's on top of the $15.25 billion lawmakers approved last month for Hurricane Harvey rebuilding. And more will almost certainly be needed. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "KERALA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.