May 17, 2023

Ranking Members Larsen, Titus Statements from Hearing on FEMA Disaster Preparedness and Response

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Ranking Member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Rick Larsen (D-WA) and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management Dina Titus (D-NV) during today’s hearing titled, “The Impacts of FEMA’s Strategic Plan on Disaster Preparedness and Response.”

Video of Larsen’s and Titus’ opening statements are here and here.

More information on the hearing can be found here.

Ranking Member Larsen:

Thank you, Subcommittee Chairman Perry and Subcommittee Ranking Member Titus for calling today’s hearing on “The Impacts of FEMA’s Strategic Plan on Disaster Preparedness and Response.”

Today, we are here to discuss the challenges FEMA is facing and how meeting the goals outlined in the 2022-2026 Strategic Plan will enable the Agency to rise to the challenge and fulfill its mission.

This conversation is critical in an ever-evolving disaster landscape fueled by climate change. Natural disasters continue to become more costly and have greater impacts upon communities across the nation.

Congress must ensure FEMA is equipped with the capacity and resources it needs to respond.

This is also a timely and important discussion for my constituents in Washington State’s 2nd congressional district. Devastating flooding in November of 2021 and ensuing storms damaged critical infrastructure and more than 2,000 homes.

Almost a year and a half later, the recovery in Whatcom County has been uneven. County officials estimate that 100 residents are still lacking permanent housing solutions. Some cannot figure out how to apply for assistance, others cannot get enough assistance to fully repair their homes, and some seem to just be falling through the cracks of multiple federal, state, and local programs.

This is not acceptable, and I will keep fighting until every single survivor in my district has secured permanent housing.

Short and long-term challenges following a natural disaster are not confined to Washington State.

The 2017 and 2018 disaster seasons, the nationwide COVID-19 disaster declaration, and last year’s deadly hurricane season have signaled the transition to a year-round disaster season, seriously straining FEMA’s staff and resources.

Last year Administrator Criswell reported a chilling statistic to this Subcommittee. Ten years ago, FEMA managed an average of 108 disasters a year, but in 2022 that number had more than doubled to 311 disasters.

With a more than 50% increase in storms and disasters in the last 10 years, FEMA’s Strategic Plan is crucial.

I look forward to discussing the progress FEMA has made to incorporate climate change projections, expand capacity and adapt its programs so survivors receive the quality assistance they deserve.

But reforming FEMA’s response and recovery programs is not enough.

FEMA needs a workforce that can rise to the challenge, but that requires adequate staffing. The Government Accountability Office recently found that a 35% staffing gap exists across different positions at FEMA.

I support FEMA’s efforts to recruit and retain a diverse workforce. FEMA’s employees should be a reflection of the communities that they serve. This won’t happen by accident. Ensuring a diverse workforce and taking action to attract employees from as broad a pool of people as possible in the United States won’t happen by accident. FEMA needs a plan to do just that.

Such diversity will improve the Agency’s understanding of the challenges faced by disaster survivors across the nation—including places like rural Mississippi, northern Alaska, Puerto Rico, New York City and even the Puget Sound—and improve the quality of program delivery.

Expanding mitigation and resilience efforts must also be at the forefront of any conversation regarding the increased frequency, intensity and cost of natural disasters.

Overwhelming evidence has proven that mitigation is a commonsense, cost-effective way to save lives and property.

That is why I strongly support expanding funding and access for mitigation and resilience projects.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law made great progress in making our nation more resilient by providing $5 billion for pre-disaster mitigation programs.

Yet, more still needs to be done to ensure our nation’s readiness.

This includes ensuring pre-disaster mitigation grants are accessible to applicants across the country and that projects selected for mitigation awards receive those funds in a timely manner.

I look forward to discussing how we can work together to drive needed reforms inside FEMA to achieve the Agency’s goals and its mission.

Thank you to today’s witnesses. I look forward to hearing your testimony.


Ranking Member Titus:

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I want to thank our witnesses for joining us today as we discuss FEMA’s ongoing efforts to implement the 2022-2026 Strategic Plan.

Since last year’s Strategic Plan hearing, this Subcommittee has heard from witnesses and stakeholders that climate change and the related severe weather events have continued to alter the emergency management landscape. Today’s disasters are more frequent, cause more damage, and take longer to recover from.

Even my home state of Nevada has experienced the impacts of this new disaster climate. While the West still addresses the impacts of a decades-long drought, record snowfall this year is leading to severe flooding, landslides, and mudslides in Nevada, resulting in a major disaster declaration. I am committed to working with Governor Lombardo and FEMA until every eligible repair project in my state is complete.

As FEMA faces such unprecedented challenges, I’d particularly like to thank our witness, Deputy Administrator Hooks, and the entire Agency staff for rising to the challenges fueled by climate change, supporting nationwide disaster response and recovery efforts, and simultaneously leading the federal effort to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But work remains to be done to find solutions to improve how FEMA administers its assistance programs.

Natural disasters amplify existing disparities in our society, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has highlighted concerns with FEMA’s ability to administer its programs fairly. Time and time again we see well-resourced households recover more quickly after a disaster than poorer ones. It is not right that some community members can resume normal life a few weeks or months after a disaster while others are forced to live in substandard housing or on the couches of friends and family for prolonged periods. Recent reporting is telling us that some of these individuals and families never get to go back home after a disaster. They are permanently displaced from their communities or experience homelessness.

As a result of these concerns, I reintroduced the Disaster Survivor Fairness Act which includes a series of reforms designed to make federal disaster aid more easily accessible to survivors, and it is my hope my bill would also help FEMA adapt to the current disaster climate. It removes barriers to aid by creating a universal application for federal disaster assistance and empowers the Agency to assess home damage more fairly and accurately post-disaster. This should ease the burden on families applying for disaster assistance after what might have been the worst day of their lives.

Deputy Administrator, I thank you and your colleagues for the work you have done to guide FEMA in a positive direction by acknowledging and addressing the impacts of climate change, prioritizing equity, and investing in mitigation and resilience. I look forward to testimony from you and Mr. Currie as it should help this Subcommittee understand the challenges the Agency faces this year and develop solutions. Thank you.