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The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, responds to natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes. But in recent weeks, it has also been sent to assist at the border, and it's helping to administer COVID-19 shots in several states. As NPR's Brian Naylor reports, that has led to concerns that the agency is being spread too thin.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: When the Biden administration announced last month that FEMA officials were being sent to the border, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said it was to help place unaccompanied minors in shelters and with families.
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JEN PSAKI: They're playing a number of roles there to address what we feel is a significant problem and a significant challenge.
NAYLOR: Playing a number of roles is nothing new for FEMA. But Elizabeth Zimmermann, who worked at the agency during the Obama administration, says it does pose a potential problem.
ELIZABETH ZIMMERMAN: So FEMA is stretched very thin right now. I will start with that. FEMA is the coordinating agency on behalf of the president and does their job and does it very well. But when you look at FEMA's daily reports with the number of staff that they have available to deploy for disasters, it is very low.
NAYLOR: With some 5,000 full-time employees, FEMA is one of the smallest federal agencies. It has another 23,000 temporary workers on reserve. Almost all are deployed right now, working on previous disasters and at the border and with COVID, leaving about 2,700 workers available in case another disaster strikes. Steve Reaves is president of the union that represents FEMA employees.
STEVE REAVES: With COVID, with everything else, with Border Patrol, with fire season and hurricane season and, right after that, flood season and mudslide season - right? - we need more people.
NAYLOR: Brock Long served as FEMA administrator during the Trump administration, and in a statement to NPR, he put it this way. He said that if the FEMA workforce was a car engine, it has been redlining - that is, operating at its maximum capacity - since 2017. And he said the agency was never designed to become the federal government's equivalent to 911. But Elizabeth Zimmerman says that's just what the agency has become.
ZIMMERMAN: FEMA is looked at across the whole federal government as being that agency who knows how to coordinate and bring people together to get action, to get results.
NAYLOR: And Craig Fugate, who was FEMA administrator during the Obama administration, says concerns about FEMA being stretched too thin are exaggerated.
CRAIG FUGATE: This is an evergreen story. It comes up every time FEMA gets busy. What most people don't understand is that there's a lot of flexibility in how FEMA deploys - it's like these vaccination centers. They're not staffed by all-FEMA staff. There's a lot of contractors and a lot of other federal agencies that are doing the bulk of it. So, you know, when you think about these sites, they're not, like, you know, hundreds of FEMA employees at every one of them.
NAYLOR: Fugate says if another disaster strikes, FEMA can transfer workers from other long-term tasks - not ideal, he says, but not unprecedented.
FUGATE: We had people down in Haiti during the earthquake there. We had deployed people to CDC during Ebola. We were involved in the border. And, again, talking to folks at FEMA, this is actually a much smaller deployment than we did in the Obama administration.
NAYLOR: FEMA did not respond to a request for a comment. Meanwhile, President Biden today declared a major disaster in Kentucky because of severe storms there in February, making it eligible for federal assistance and another reminder of the day-to-day role FEMA plays. Brian Naylor, NPR News.
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