February 16, 2022

Chairs DeFazio, Titus Statements from Hearing on FEMA Stakeholder Priorities for 2022

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 Priorities for 2022: Stakeholder Perspectives.”

Video of opening remarks from Chairs DeFazio and Titus are here and here.

More information on the hearing can be found here.

Chair DeFazio:

Thank you, Chair Titus, and thank you to our witnesses for being with us today.

Today’s witnesses will provide stakeholder perspectives on FEMA’s successes and shortcomings.

As natural disasters become more costly and have greater impact upon communities across the nation, it is critical that FEMA programs are as effective and efficient as possible. We’ve heard time and again that the quality of FEMA interactions significantly impacts disaster survivors’ recovery.

In 2020, wildfires forced Oregonians to understand the importance of FEMA’s programs more than ever. The Labor Day fires damaged more than 5,000 structures across the state and tens of thousands of Oregonians were forced to evacuate.

A year and a half later, the recovery process for this disaster continues. Just last week, the Seattle Times reported that some survivors who lost their homes are still struggling to secure long-term housing solutions.

I continue to follow the progress of survivors and am committed to helping Oregonians throughout this long recovery process. The entire Oregon congressional delegation recently joined together to send a letter to FEMA Administrator Criswell regarding FEMA’s direct housing mission and the possibility of rental charges being assessed on survivors during a six-month extension, which the agency just approved at the request of the state.

A series of unprecedented hazard events, including the record cost of the 2017 and 2018 disaster seasons and nation-wide major disaster declarations for COVID-19, have stretched FEMA to its limit. The agency’s oversubscription has made it difficult for FEMA’s workforce to adequately support disaster survivors.

I hope today’s discussion will help us consider ways that FEMA might adapt its programs to ensure quality assistance to survivors in this new reality, which is fueled by climate change and compounded by a pandemic.  

Disasters do not discriminate. Therefore, it is critical that FEMA programs are designed to benefit the needs of every single disaster survivor.

The GAO has highlighted concerns with FEMA’s ability to administer its programs equitably. I am pleased that this Administration has made equity a priority and that FEMA is in the process of seeking innovative ways to restructure its programs. I fully support these efforts and am open to considering statutory changes that may be needed to achieve this goal.

The increasing frequency, intensity, and cost of natural disasters makes us ask—what can we do to protect communities before disaster strikes? The answer is to invest in mitigation efforts.

Time and again we’ve discussed mitigation as a commonsense, cost-effective way to save lives and property. That’s why I strongly support finding ways to expand funding for mitigation projects.

I am proud to have introduced the Resilient AMERICA package along with Chair Titus and Ranking Members Graves and Webster last year. We successfully advanced this bill out of committee, and I look forward to the opportunity to debate it on the House Floor. The improvements to hazard mitigation assistance programs that this legislation provides will help individuals and communities make needed investments in mitigation efforts.

However, mitigation cannot be effective unless it is fairly distributed across all communities. Stakeholder feedback has me concerned that FEMA’s mitigation assistance programs are only reaching the largest and best-resourced communities. The complexity of the application processes makes it near impossible for small, disadvantaged, and rural communities to successfully access these funds.

I sent a letter with Chair Titus, Ranking Member Webster, and Ranking Member Graves to FEMA this week to detail my concern and request an update on the agency’s actions to address inequity in the mitigation grant application process. This concern has been echoed by the witnesses’ written testimony.

Once again, thank you to our witnesses for joining us today. I look forward to hearing your testimony and learning from your experience.

Chair Titus:

I’d like to welcome everyone to today’s hearing and thank our witnesses for joining us to discuss their perspectives regarding what FEMA should prioritize in 2022.

While Southern Nevada does not experience many major disasters that require FEMA intervention, the nationwide major disaster declaration for COVID-19 reminded us that unexpected events can impact any community at any time. During this major disaster declaration—which is still an open event––Nevadans have relied on FEMA’s programs, such as vaccine sites, to provide lifesaving services.

Climate change and associated severe weather, as well as development in high-risk areas have changed the emergency management landscape. Disasters are more expensive and have a greater impact than ever before, supported by government and insurance industry data.

Today we are going to discuss how FEMA can adapt to this new reality and ensure disaster survivors and their communities remain the priority.

The demand for Public Assistance, which is used to repair public infrastructure after a disaster, has skyrocketed with the increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters.

Presently, FEMA has the largest queue for Public Assistance worksheets to date, a result of the national scale of the pandemic declarations, as well as expanded eligibility for pandemic-related countermeasures.

Reimbursements provided by FEMA’s Public Assistance program are critical for communities trying to get back on their feet post-disaster. However, we hear time and time again from stakeholders that this program is plagued by red tape and burdensome requirements. This year, it must be an agency priority to simplify the Public Assistance program so that it can better assist communities.

There is no place where the consequences of FEMA’s complex Public Assistance program are more evident than Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Individuals in these communities are still waiting for the restoration of full access to basic public infrastructure such as reliable electricity, health care facilities, schools, and roads following Hurricanes Irma and Maria nearly five years ago.  And I remain committed to supporting the recovery process in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands until the last public worksheet has been completed.

When considering how to improve FEMA’s programs, focus must be placed upon its workforce. I am proud that FEMA’s workforce has consistently risen to the challenge––they have been confronted with unprecedented disaster damage, a pandemic, and expanding responsibilities.

I expect to soon introduce bipartisan legislation designed to ensure FEMA has the tools needed to recruit and retain qualified workers for its cadre of disaster reservists. I believe that providing FEMA’s workforce with access to appropriate protections, training, and benefits will increase the agency’s capabilities and result in better outcomes for disaster survivors and their communities.

A consistent thread connecting FEMA’s challenges is the increasing severity and cost of disasters. Mitigation projects must be used to reduce the impact of such incidents and build resilience. That is why I am proud to have championed expanded mitigation efforts as Chair of this Subcommittee, including our bipartisan Resilient AMERICA package. We’ve also sent a letter to FEMA regarding the inequitable distribution of mitigation grant dollars.

I look forward to continuing these efforts in 2022.

FEMA has achieved many noteworthy accomplishments––but there is still much work to be done. The Government Accountability Office has more than 50 open recommendations to FEMA, which address shortcomings across all of FEMA’s programs.

I look forward to hearing from Mr. Currie regarding how the GAO believes FEMA should prioritize addressing outstanding recommendations. I also look forward to hearing how state and local emergency managers represented by the National Emergency Management Association and International Association of Emergency Managers have been impacted by FEMA’s programs.

I once again thank our witnesses for joining us today to share their perspective and expertise. We are grateful for your testimony and look forward to our discussion.