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26 Jul, 2020 22:39

Federal forces stretched thin? Triple whammy of pandemic, riots and now hurricanes puts Trump administration to perilous test

Federal forces stretched thin? Triple whammy of pandemic, riots and now hurricanes puts Trump administration to perilous test

US Homeland Security officials have added hurricane relief to a to-do list already crammed with responses to the Covid-19 pandemic and riots across the nation, calling into question how far federal resources can be stretched.

Hurricane Douglas is approaching Hawaii and is forecast to skirt or pass over the islands through tonight, "bringing a triple threat" of damaging winds, flooding rain and dangerously high surf, the National Hurricane Center said. President Donald Trump declared an emergency for the state. Its arrival comes one day after Hurricane Hanna made landfall in South Texas, bringing potentially catastrophic flooding to a region that was already hit hard by the virus outbreak.

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"While continuing to respond to Covid, FEMA is prepared and ready to support Hawaii's local and state officials in response to this storm," Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Pete Gaynor said Saturday on Twitter.

FEMA is part of the Department of Homeland Security, whose chief, Chad Wolf, said on Friday that the Trump administration was monitoring the storms and stood ready to respond.

But Wolf has had his hands full in responding to violent protests, including nightly clashes between DHS forces and rioters in Portland, as well as dealing with Covid-19 and a shortage of staff.

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Demonstrators gathered outside Wolf's home on Sunday in suburban Washington to demand an end to the deployment of federal officers in response to the anti-racism protests that have gripped the nation since Minneapolis black man George Floyd was killed in police custody on May 25. If anything, those deployments are likely to increase, as Trump said last week that he would send forces to such cities as New York and Chicago to help quell violent protests and stop escalating crime.

FEMA earlier this month denied a request by Minnesota Governor Tim Walz to aid the state in repairing damage caused when the Floyd protests escalated into riots. "It was determined that the impact to public infrastructure is within the capabilities of the local and state governments to recover from," FEMA said. Walz noted in his request letter that Minneapolis and St. Paul had suffered the second-most destructive incident of civil unrest in US history, behind only the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

Adding to the difficulty at FEMA is the fact that the agency is shorthanded because some of its leadership positions haven't been filled, including both deputy administrator slots. A group of Democrat lawmakers, including House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, sent a letter to Gaynor on July 21, raising "strong concerns" that FEMA may be ill-prepared to fulfill its responsibilities while stretched thin by Covid-19 and facing the ramp-up of hurricane and wildfire seasons.

Thompson told Gaynor at a July 22 House hearing that the Trump administration’s response to the virus was an “abject failure.” He cited continuing shortages of medical supplies, increasing wait times for test results, and an urgent demand for intensive care hospital beds in areas where the outbreak is “spinning out of control.”

The lawmakers urged Gaynor to work with Wolf and the White House to find qualified emergency managers to fill the vacancies "before a catastrophic disaster befalls our nation."

Gaynor said last month that FEMA had plans to respond to any disaster during the Covid-19 outbreak. "Since the start of 2020, FEMA responded to three emergency declarations, 17 major disaster declarations and approved six fire management assistance grants in addition to pandemic response," he said.

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