March 11, 2020

Chairs DeFazio, Titus Statements from Hearing on FEMA Priorities

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR), and Chair of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management Dina Titus (D-NV) during today’s hearing titled: “FEMA’s Priorities for 2020 and Beyond: Coordinating Mission and Vision.”

Chair DeFazio:

Thank you Chair Titus, and thank you Administrator Gaynor for being here today.

As you know, this Committee is responsible for jurisdiction over all of FEMA’s Stafford Act authorities, but also over Federal management of emergencies writ large.

I’ve unfortunately been here to see FEMA during some its worst moments, but also, during some of its best.

Last month, I led a delegation to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Two and a half years after hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated both, noticeable Federal recovery efforts leave a lot to be desired.

But my delegation got the sense from your local partners in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands that their FEMA counterparts were willing and committed to their full recoveries.

And, it’s worth noting that we’ve noticed the uptick in approved Federal recovery assistance flowing to commonwealth and the territory.

I also want to note for the record that it’s been nearly eight weeks since a magnitude 6.4 earthquake struck southern Puerto Rico, and you have still not approved permanent repair assistance. I am also troubled to hear that survivors are having to go through a similar rigamarole as what happened in the wake of the 2017 hurricanes when it comes to registering for Individual Assistance – it’s bureaucratic, cruel, and unnecessary. FEMA developed a self-certification document two and a half years ago in Puerto Rico, and it should just be using it again this time around.

That said, I am pleased that you’ve accepted your promotion to this thankless role and that the Senate has confirmed you. As you know, you’re only as good as your most recent disaster, so I expect you’ll be leaning forward.

We have strong expectations that you will continue to advance full implementation of the Disaster Recovery Reform Act. We’re looking forward to a robust new pre-disaster mitigation program later this year, as former Deputy Administrator Kaniewski previewed for us last May.

So, you’ve certainly got your work cut out for you.

We look forward to your testimony today, but also to this Subcommittee working with you as a partner to ensure you have all the authorities you need to execute on your mission of helping people before, during, and following disasters.

Thank you again.

Chair DeFazio’s remarks as delivered can be found here.

Chair Titus:

Today we will examine the priorities for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and its vision for addressing the challenges the agency faces in meeting its strategic priorities. 

I want to start by recognizing and welcoming our new Ranking Member, Mr. Katko of New York State.

We also serve on the Homeland Security Committee, which has some overlapping jurisdiction, so I see great opportunities for collaboration.

Our Subcommittee is responsible for a wide variety of issues and agencies, and produces more legislation than any other in this Committee.

I look forward to keeping these efforts on track and working with you and your staff.

This morning we are joined by FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor who for the better part of the last year served in an acting role until he was confirmed earlier this year.

FEMA is supposed to be led by three presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed public servants. Yet, here we are, and you’re the only one confirmed.

Here in the House, we often like to point to the lack of action in the U.S. Senate, but in this situation that’s not the case.

The White House hasn’t even nominated anyone to fill the other two positions. And this void in management at FEMA comes at a time when we are navigating several major disaster declarations and a pandemic with potentially devastating impacts all across the country.

Strong leadership is essential at every level within FEMA.

There is also shared concern in this Subcommittee that FEMA’s workforce is stretched thin, and you note as much in your written testimony.

It’s clear that we need solutions to improve recruitment and retention at FEMA so that the agency can effectively respond to the needs of communities in the wake of disasters.

It should go without saying that the government must address the needs of all Americans in disaster recovery. However, some of our most vulnerable populations are being neglected – shamefully overlooked by existing FEMA programs.

Committee staff have met with advocates from the disability and low-income communities regarding frustration with FEMA’s attention to their needs in times of recovery.

After years of progress on this front in response to the failures we saw in Hurricane Katrina, these communities fear that we are backtracking. 

We will discuss these concerns further during today’s hearing.

I appreciate how much you’ve embraced the Disaster Recovery Reform Act and the long-term benefits it will have, not only for the well-being of our people in times of disaster, but for the resilience of our public buildings and private homes.

In the wake of disaster, we should be building back better than what existed before.

That is why I was proud of the bipartisan work of this Committee in passing H.R. 5756, the Resiliency Enhancement Act sponsored by Congresswoman Plaskett of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Congresswoman Gonzalez-Colon of Puerto Rico.

Finally, I’m certain that Members of this Committee would be interested to hear an update on FEMA’s involvement in the effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the United States.

At the state, local, tribal, and territorial level, public health officials are working with their emergency management counterparts to boost public preparedness, safety, and education.

To date, FEMA has not been part of this coordinated effort as it was in 2000 in response to the West Nile outbreak.

I’ll close by saying that we recognize the challenges you face, Mr. Administrator, and we are here because we want you to be successful in this job. Our communities need you to be successful in your job.

Chair Titus’s remarks as delivered can be found here.