June 23, 2021

Chairs DeFazio, Titus Statements from Hearing with FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell on the Agency’s Priorities for the Upcoming Fiscal Year

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 FY22 and Beyond: Coordinating Mission, Vision, and Budget.” Videos 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 Administrator Criswell for being here today.

As I reminded former Administrator Gaynor at last year’s hearing, this Committee has jurisdiction over all of FEMA’s Stafford Act authorities. What I didn’t realize then was how much time we were all going to spend working on FEMA issues over the past year.

I suspected that a lot of our work was going to surround the oversight of the still-ongoing recoveries from the record wildfires of 2017 and 2018, as well as hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Michael.

Hearing from members representing those disaster devastated areas, I was frustrated by the complexity of nearly every aspect of the recoveries, but when I traveled to see these areas, I was always heartened by the FEMA leaders in place who were clearly committed to working with state and local leaders through the tough recovery issues.

But, one of the common threads across these recoveries was a disconnect somewhere in the Public Assistance pipeline, where bureaucracy was able to rear its ugly head and stymie efforts on the ground.

Unfortunately, since last year’s hearing with the previous administrator, much of my own state of Oregon is also now working through recovery from the catastrophic destruction of last September’s wildfires, while concurrently planning for what will likely be another devastating wildfire season.

All while still fighting to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic.

And Oregon isn’t alone. So many states, territories, and tribes are working through recoveries from non-pandemic, presidentially-declared emergencies and disasters from recent years.

The committee has some serious concerns with the logjam in the Public Assistance pipeline. That’s why I’m thankful that President Biden clarified eligibility for pandemic-related efforts earlier this year. But the glut of eligible project worksheets and the pace with which the agency is adjudicating them is daunting and frankly maddening.

But, despite the backlog, I’m glad that we were able to ensure the agency had the resources necessary to provide assistance. We worked hard on the CARES Act, the end-of-year FY21 omnibus, and this year’s American Rescue Plan.

The only two times that I recall Congress providing FEMA as much and as quickly to assist states and locals was in the wake of 9/11 and the 2005 hurricane season that produced Katrina, Rita, and Wilma.

Tucked into last year’s omnibus and this year’s Rescue Plan was dedicated funds for funeral assistance—assistance for individual Americans who lost their lives to the pandemic.

As a share of FEMA’s overall assistance, help for disaster survivors is infinitesimal compared to Public Assistance. Yet Individual Assistance is seemingly bureaucratic and even more exasperating.

When you get a letter from me, Ranking Member Sam Graves, Chair Titus, and Ranking Member Webster about the confusion regarding even basic determinations of eligibility for Individual Assistance and the drastic differences between survivors’ Individual Assistance awards for similar types of damages, you know you have a problem.

The apparent inconsistencies and inequities for disaster survivors seeking help are frustrating. And the process survivors endure to apply and get evaluated is frankly a black box.

We can’t seem to get details as basic as the full lists of questions posed to survivors or even copies of the form letters used by the agency to communicate throughout the process.

I’m all for preventing fraud, but there must be a middle ground between the abuses we saw in the wake of the 2005 hurricanes and the bureaucratic Individual Assistance program that exists today.

Survivors who have lost literally everything should not have to go through a rigmarole to try to prove eligibility for often meager FEMA assistance. It’s demoralizing.

Having been here for the post-Katrina investigations, I realize there will always be people trying to beat the systems in place to deter fraud. But, the federal government should be able to ensure more consistent outcomes for survivors, without making them jump through hoops.

I appreciate that you’ve discussed the importance of ensuring more equity for survivors and the FEMA workforce, and I look forward to learning more about how you’re going to improve outcomes in this area.

One more priority of the committee that I hope we can work on with you is pre-disaster mitigation. We are all proud of the work we did to get the Disaster Recovery Reform Act enacted in 2018, and the more consistent resources it provides for pre-disaster mitigation.

We were pleased to hear about the upcoming Notice of Funding Opportunity for the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program—doubling it from last year’s $500 million to $1 billion. This is a great step, but interest in last year’s BRIC funding outstripped available resources by nearly three billion dollars.

This is another area where the chairs and ranking members sent a letter to your predecessor last October. Based on the calculations of disaster relief during the first six months of the pandemic, FEMA should have placed $3.2 billion dollars into the pre-disaster mitigation set aside. Instead, the Trump administration only set-aside $500 million.

So, that means that there’s yet another $1.7 billion in authority you have to commit to pre-disaster mitigation from the COVID declarations alone, which could result in—at a minimum—a four-to-one return on investment.

We are looking at ways to provide additional funding for these very cost-effective investments so that we can achieve our shared goal of building a more disaster-resistant nation.

Thank you again for your time, testimony, and expertise. I’m hopeful that you’ll be the change agent needed to drive reforms inside FEMA, improve outcomes, and cut red tape. I look forward to the committee being a partner to ensure you have the authorities, resources, and direction to achieve your goals and the agency’s mission.

Thank you. I yield back.

Chair Titus:

Today we will examine the priorities for the coming fiscal year for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and of Administrator Deanne Criswell, the agency’s first female leader.

I look forward to hearing how Administrator Criswell and her team plan to convert the priorities in the President Biden’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget request into measurable improvements in FEMA’s administration of emergency assistance, disaster relief, mitigation, and resilience.

In March of last year, we held a similar hearing with former Administrator Gaynor two days before President Trump invoked the Stafford Act to grant emergency declarations to each state and territory to provide assistance to combat the COVID-19 pandemic as it quickly spread.

At the time, I don’t think Mr. Gaynor could have imagined FEMA would be tapped a month later to plan and conduct an airlift in coordination with the Department of Defense and the private sector to bring staggering volumes of personal protective equipment from all over the world into this country. Since then, FEMA helped multiple states utilize refrigerated tractor trailers to serve as makeshift mortuaries, set up the Lost Wages Assistance program to provide additional jobless aid to those impacted by the pandemic’s economic impact concurrent with record-setting hurricane and wildfire seasons last year, and processed an unprecedented number  of reimbursement requests from eligible grantees and sub-grantees. In fact, there were more unique requestors in the last year alone than there were in the Agency’s first four decades of existence.

And these are just the most immediate issues that Administrator Criswell will be tasked with addressing.

While the agency has accomplished much since March 2020—including helping state, local, tribal, and territorial partners fully vaccinate more than one hundred and fifty million Americans since January of this year—many of the problems that deserved FEMA’s attention pre-pandemic remain.

Fortunately, Administrator Criswell is no stranger to FEMA, nor to being challenged shortly after stepping into a new leadership role.

She served with distinction at FEMA as a Federal Coordinating Officer and the lead for one of the Agency’s elite National Incident Management Assistance Teams. Days after taking the helm of New York City Emergency Management, a blackout struck Manhattan, stranding hundreds in elevators and subways, and wreaking havoc over a good chunk of the island.

I do not expect our witness to have solved all of the agency’s challenges half-way through her eighth full week leading FEMA.

But I am hopeful that we can learn more about her plans to address the foundational challenges facing FEMA: adjudicating the backlog of reimbursements due to states and local governments under the Public Assistance program; tackling the inequities of the Individual Assistance program; recruiting and retaining a qualified, compassionate, and competent disaster workforce to provide timely aid; and allocating resources to better invest in mitigation and resilience before danger strikes so our communities are able to get back up on their feet faster and with less expense following a disaster.

We must build back better, not continue to make the same mistakes because it may be easier or cheaper in the short-term.

I expect we’ll touch upon many of these tasks during today’s hearing, and how President Biden’s budget request will contribute to resolving them.

I’ll close by saying we recognize the challenges you face, Administrator Criswell, and we are here because we want you to be successful in this job. We also want to ensure you have the resources and authorities you need to get the job done, and done right for survivors and their impacted communities.