WASHINGTON – For decades, the backbone of the nation's disaster response system – and a hallmark of American generosity – has been its army of volunteers who are running into danger to help shelter, feed and advise victims of hurricanes, forest fires. and other calamities.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic exposed a critical weakness in this system: the majority of volunteers are older people and at higher risk for the virus; therefore, this year they will not be able to participate in person. Typically, more than 5 million volunteers work annually in disaster relief, said Greg Forrester, president of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, an association of nonprofit groups, but this year he expects the number to drop by 50%.
Asked how disaster relief efforts can meet the usual demand with half the number of people, Forrester said, "You will not."
It is the latest in a series of cascading problems facing an already worn-out system, ahead of what is expected to be an extraordinarily severe hurricane season, combined with disasters such as this week's collapse and flooding in Michigan, a particularly state. hit by Covid-19.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is lacking highly trained personnel as the virus depletes its staff. Long-standing procedures for sheltering victims in gyms or other crowded spaces are suddenly dangerous because they risk worsening the pandemic. And traditional agreements between states to help each other if crises are now raging, as states remain cautious about exposing their own people to the virus.
It is one of the most severe tests in decades for a system designed to respond to local or regional storms or other disasters – not a national-scale crisis. However, FEMA was forced to take a leading role at Covid-19, employing more than 3,000 employees across the country and effectively executing its first disaster response in 50 states.
"A pandemic complicates all aspects of planning and responding to disasters in a way we have never experienced before," said Chris Currie, who leads the team at the non-governmental Accountability Office that studies emergency management. "You are as good as the weakest link."
FEMA says it has taken steps to prepare for the hurricane season, including expanding its coordination center in Washington, hiring employees and working with state and local authorities and nonprofits to adapt to the pandemic. "We don't take our eyes off the ball on how to deal with other disasters that may occur during this period," Peter Gaynor, FEMA administrator, told a news conference this month.
On Wednesday, the agency said it intended to avoid, as far as possible, sending relief teams to disaster zones this year, instead of relying on "virtual" assistance, such as talking to survivors by phone, using photos or other documentation from storm damage to approve. claims and meetings with state and local colleagues online and not in person.
Volunteers are essential to responding to disasters in the United States, distributing supplies, cleaning up debris and rebuilding homes. In interviews, executives from nonprofit organizations like the Salvation Army, who help organize teams of volunteers, said that in normal years, they would train and equip thousands of people and take them to any part of the country that needed help, to house and feed them. closely.
Suddenly, none of this works.
Three-quarters of Salvation Army volunteers for most disasters are 65 or older, according to Jeff Jellets, the group's disaster coordinator in the southern United States. For these people, "We are telling them, perhaps this is not the best time for you to deploy," he said, considering that older people are at a particularly high risk for Covid-19.
The consequences can be enormous: the Salvation Army has more than 2.7 million volunteers annually for everything from disaster response to after-school programs and vocational programs. Disaster volunteers worked 3.5 million hours during the 2017 hurricane season.
The Salvation Army is considering using more paid staff and lodging them in hotels instead of dorms. But that is expensive, said Jellets, and the pandemic has shut down Salvation Army thrift stores, which make nearly $ 600 million in sales annually.
Habitat for Humanity, which last year helped rebuild or repair nearly 700 homes damaged by disasters in the United States, also receives many of its volunteers from older Americans, according to Jonathan Reckford, executive director. Given the risks of air travel combined with the danger that volunteers would inadvertently bring the disease to a community they are trying to help, Reckford said Habitat for Humanity had, for now, stopped sending volunteers.
Overall, the organization gathered 1.2 million volunteers last year for all its work. Did not break a number for disaster response.
This means that your group is unlikely to be able to respond the way it usually does if a hurricane hits the United States this year. "It's our biggest fear now," said Reckford.
If a disaster hit a part of the country that was quarantined on a large scale, "we would really have to move away from some of our responses in those areas," Mary Casey-Lockyer, senior associate in the region's disaster health program. American Red Cross, said during a webinar for nonprofits last week. The Red Cross sent 9,000 workers to major disasters last year; expects to send half the number of volunteers this year.
"I don't want to imagine a world where it's so bad that we can't respond," added Cathy Earl, director of disaster response for the United Methodist Relief Committee, which has 10,000 volunteers across the country working on disaster response. She said it was difficult to project how many volunteers would be deployed this year, but considered a 50% reduction "a reasonable estimate".
The lack of volunteers threatens to impact the country's disaster response system, exacerbating other problems.
A knock-on effect will be financial. Under federal law, state or local governments generally have to pay $ 25 for every $ 75 that the federal government provides for disaster relief. But they can count on volunteer services for that amount, Forrester said.
As a result, fewer volunteers means that cities, counties and states need to invent more of their own money to get federal aid.
But local governments are already struggling financially with the virus. Only counties saw $ 144 billion in lost revenue and increased spending, more than a fifth of its total budget, according to the National Association of Counties. "Our costs are rising rapidly and our revenues are falling," said Paul Guequierre, a spokesman for the association.
At the same time, the federal government is asking local authorities to take on new tasks.
One of the most difficult challenges will be to evacuate and shelter people without spreading the virus. In the week following the collapse of the Michigan dam, Governor Gretchen Whitmer acknowledged that social detachment in shelters would be difficult.
This week FEMA advised state and local governments to find sources of reserve supplies, find ways to distribute them without physical contact, find out how to prevent disaster survivors from gathering in groups, and do it all with "reduced support" from volunteers.
In its new orientation, FEMA also presented a series of new challenges for disaster shelters. Local authorities, he said, need to find more space and come up with a plan to house people with Covid-19.
FEMA has even urged local authorities to revise its plans to deal with the pets of disaster victims, as the spacing of rules in shelters means that there may not be room for them.
When states do not have enough people to respond to a disaster, they usually start by asking other states to send their own emergency management teams. But with Covid-19, "they're not sure what they need in their own states," said Joyce Flinn, Iowa's director of emergency management and chairman of the National Emergency Management Association committee, which oversees the mutual aid system.
When these options prove inadequate, cities and states should seek support from FEMA. However, the agency was already stretched thin as climate change makes disasters more frequent and intense. The virus crisis has increased even more.
Brock Long, who led FEMA during the 2017 and 2018 hurricanes and catastrophic fires, said there was a lot that agency staff could do. "They are like the sixth man coming off the bench in a basketball game, under the age of 20 and being told to win the game," said Long. "We won and lost together."