June 09, 2020

Harris Presses FEMA on Lack of Preparedness for Wildfire Season

Full Video of Harris’ Remarks 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) on Tuesday pressed Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Peter Gaynor on FEMA’s lack of preparedness for wildfire season during the COVID-19 pandemic. FEMA published a response plan for hurricanes during COVID-19, claiming that the same principles and standards can be applied to all disasters. Harris points out that FEMA’s focus on hurricanes and a one-size-fits-all approach, fails to acknowledge the unique challenges wildfires present, particularly during this pandemic. In April, Harris led her colleagues in sending a letter to FEMA requesting their disaster plans during the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, FEMA has not responded to the letter.

Key Harris-Gaynor Exchange: 

“Let me point a distinction between hurricanes and fires and wildfires and I'd like to– you can point my direction to where in that pamphlet this might be addressed. Wildfires are, hurricanes we get forecasts. Thankfully, we have come to a point where we have science and technology that gives us warning time. That is not the case with wildfires. So, where in your report is that fact addressed? Because I have spent time with the families, the firefighters in the midst of embers burning during the devastation of the wildfires, and there was no warning for the families that live in those communities, much less for the firefighters the first responders. So, can you tell me in your report, where that nature of that is addressed, including the fact that wildfires spread quickly? They are not regional, they will spread quickly. And where is that fact distinguish between wildfires and hurricanes?” asked Harris.

Gaynor responded, “Yes, ma'am. So, it's true that there's a difference in forecasting for hurricanes and wildfires. And so, you don't need a forecast to do actually planning. And so, what this encourages is that every emergency manager across the country, from the lowest level to the highest level, take their existing plans. So, if you have a fire evacuation plan–”

Is there a reason you don't have a plan for firefighters, for fires, for wildfires, and you only have a plan for hurricanes? Because it's not, it's not addressed specifically in your report,” Harris asked.

Gaynor responded, “Again, the lessons in this, the lessons in this guide, can be applied to any disaster. We are an all hazard agency. So, specifically for this season, the hurricane season, it's named the hurricane plan. You can apply all the lessons learned and best practices and resources to local state planning–”

Harris concluded, “I'm sorry sir, the firefighters in my state, the firefighters in my state would disagree with what you are saying, in terms of applying the same principles and standards to a response to a hurricane as to a wildfire. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”

A full transcript of Harris’ remarks can be found below:

HARRIS: This is directed to the full panel. In the midst of this deadly epidemic, the President has stated that help from the federal government was a “two way street,” indicating that states would only get assistance if their elected officials were nice to him. There have been multiple reports that while FEMA and other administration officials sought to prioritize resources to states and localities most in need, that the President sought to prioritize his personal allies instead. Mr. Gaynor, Mr. Polowczyk and Mr. Giroir. Is that the correct pronunciation?

POLOWCZYK: No. It's Admiral Polowczyk, not Mister. 

HARRIS: Thank you for that Admiral. During the federal response to COVID-19, has the President, Admiral, or any of the other panelists, or anyone at the White House directed suggested or implied that you direct or redirect resources to certain states or localities for political reasons? Admiral, why don't you start?

POLOWCZYK: Yes ma’am. Thank you. I have no – received no direction from any member of the White House to tell me where to send anything. We have our prioritization cell at FEMA that takes CDC inputs and inputs from Dr. Birx to provide COVID communities most in need. And that's – so anything that was distributed or sent was based on those priorities.

HARRIS: And reports also suggest, as a follow up to you, that the White House has intervened in the federal contracting process, which is designed, of course to be devoid of political interference. Has the President or anyone at the White House ever directed, suggested, or implied that you should award or deny contracts to specific entities? And that's just a yes or no, please.

POLOWCZYK: I'm not involved in the contracting process. So, I have no knowledge of that. The FEMA organization has its own contracting staff and they do not work for me and I have no involvement in contracting.

HARRIS: Thank you, Mr. Gaynor?

GAYNOR: What question are we going to start on ma’am?

HARRIS: The first one, please, which is during the federal response to COVID-19 has the President or anyone at the White House directed, suggested, or implied that you direct or redirect resources to certain states or localities for political reasons?

GAYNOR: Absolutely not.

HARRIS: And has anyone at the White House or the president ever directed or suggested or implied that you should award or deny contracts?

GAYNOR: Ma’am, when it comes to contracting, there is a – between a potential lead that comes from multiple different places. So, from governors, to senators, from congressmen, you know, those leads are generated and they go into a validation system inside FEMA, between that lead and a contract, that chasm is as wide as the Grand Canyon. Those things don't touch. I have the highest confidence in my contracting team acquisition procurement, that every contract was, was executed according to all the federal regulations without influence from anyone in government, no matter where they sit.

HARRIS: Thank you. And Admiral Giroir?

GIROIR: Thank you, ma'am. The answer the first question is – no, ma'am. I have not been directed to put any resources anywhere. It's always gone through the prioritization cell or other HHS mechanisms. And for the second, I have no knowledge of that, again, I'm not a contracting officer either so I'm not involved in the contracting process, but I don't have any knowledge of that.

HARRIS: Okay, thank you. And the federal government has a very bleak history, frankly, of failing to provide adequate resources like food, housing, financial support, and others to specific communities that have experienced a disaster and I'm referencing the administration's response to Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. On April 24, I led a letter with Ranking Member Peters demanding answers to how the administration is addressing racial disparities. I believe this has come up earlier in this hearing. I finally received a response yesterday evening. Unfortunately, it was inadequate, frankly, and deferred to data – referred to data that HHS and CDC are collecting. But in a House hearing last week, CDC Director Redfield acknowledged that HHS has not fulfilled its responsibility to collect racial data. And not– as it relates to non-governmental data, we do– the ones that we have do not indicate the mortality rate for or they actually do indicate that the mortality rate for Black Americans is nearly two and a half times higher than for white Americans and other minority populations, particularly native and indigenous communities are also disproportionately impacted. So, I asked this question of Admiral Giroir. I know HHS is using a social vulnerability index. And so I thank you for that. Mr. Gaynor, what specific action are you taking? 

GAYNOR: Yes ma’am if I can just address the letters. So, FEMA and my great partners are still responding to COVID-19 across the nation. So that is an ongoing response. I have received in excess 300 letters from Congress. These are numbers that we haven't seen before. And we try to get to each and every one of them as fast as we can. I think FEMA has a great relationship with Congress about how fast – we speed responses to the Congress. So, we will, we will get to every one of those. And so, I apologize for the delay, but my effort and my focus has really been on response. To offset that, to include myself personally and my staff, over 500 engagements with Congress, governors, mayors on COVID-19 providing all the up to date data we can get. 

HARRIS: I appreciate that. I only have a few minutes left but I would appreciate your attention to getting a response for us as soon as possible. Thank you for that.

GAYNOR: I can do that ma’am.

HARRIS: And my last question is – I've previously asked about how FEMA plans to address the wild fire season. And I've asked this a number of times to a number of different people at FEMA, and we've still not received what is the disaster preparedness response plan for wildfires, which disproportionately impact my state in the midst of the pandemic. Can you tell me when we're going to get them?

 

GAYNOR: Yes, ma'am. You actually have it. So again, I want to step back. You know, this whole system works locally executed, state managed, federally supported. I was a local emergency manager. I have a responsibility to my mayor, to my time manager, to my travel chief, to–

HARRIS: And I appreciate the chain of command but Sir, this is my question. We actually don't have – we have a hurricane plan.

GAYNOR: Yes, ma'am.

HARRIS: Is that what you're referring to because that is very different by nature than wildfires?

GAYNOR: Although it does say hurricane on the cove, in the first paragraph of the opening statement, it says that the lessons learned in this can be applied to any disaster.

HARRIS: Well, let me point a distinction between hurricanes and fires and wildfires and I'd like to– you can point my direction to where in that pamphlet this might be addressed. Wildfires are, hurricanes we get forecasts. Thankfully, we have come to a point where we have science and technology that gives us warning time. That is not the case with wildfires. So, where in your report is that fact addressed? Because I have spent time with the families, the firefighters in the midst of embers burning during the devastation of the wildfires, and there was no warning for the families that live in those communities, much less for the firefighters the first responders. So, can you tell me in your report, where that nature of that is addressed, including the fact that wildfires spread quickly? They are not regional, they will spread quickly. And where is that fact distinguish between wildfires and hurricanes?

GAYNOR: Yes, ma'am. So, it's true that there's a difference in forecasting for hurricanes and wildfires. And so, you don't need a forecast to do actually planning. And so, what this encourages is that every emergency manager across the country, from the lowest level to the highest level, take their existing plans. So, if you have a fire evacuation plan–

HARRIS: Is there a reason you don't have a plan for firefighters, for fires, for wildfires, and you only have a plan for hurricanes? Because it's not, it's not addressed specifically in your report.

GAYNOR: Again, the lessons in this, the lessons in this guide, can be applied to any disaster. We are an all hazard agency. So, specifically for this season, the hurricane season, it's named the hurricane plan. You can apply all the lessons learned and best practices and resources to local state planning–

HARRIS: I'm sorry sir, the firefighters in my state, the firefighters in my state would disagree with what you are saying, in terms of applying the same principles and standards to a response to a hurricane as to a wildfire. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

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