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Katko Opening Statement in FEMA Readiness Hearing

June 29, 2021

Katko Opening Statement in FEMA Readiness Hearing

WASHINGTON, DC – Rep. John Katko (R-NY), Ranking Member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, delivered the following opening statement in a full committee hearing entitled, “Examining FEMA’s Readiness to Meet Its Mission.”

Ranking Member Katko’s Opening Statement (as prepared for delivery)

Thank you for holding his hearing today, Mr. Chairman. I want to welcome the witness, Ms. Criswell. I appreciate the time we spent last week together. I found it very helpful and very informative and I’m confident we’re going to have a good working relationship going forward. Before I start my opening, I just want to acknowledge the recent tragedy in Surfside, Florida. I know that Ms. Criswell recently returned from there, and my thoughts and prayers go out to all those involved in the tragedy and those working the rescue operation, including FEMA.

I would like to congratulate Ms. Criswell on her confirmation. In a field that has traditionally been dominated by men, Ms. Criswell is the first woman to lead FEMA as a confirmed Director or Administrator. For an agency that was formed in 1979, I would say that this is long overdue. Ms. Criswell, I congratulate you on being a trailblazer, and thank you for being a role model for the thousands of women that are already in the field of emergency management, and for those that are thinking about a career in the field. I hope that you are the first of many.

FEMA has had its hands full for the past several years. After having not been hit by a major hurricane in over a decade (Hurricane Wilma in 2005), 2017 devastated the United States with three major hurricanes – Harvey, Irma and Maria. And it doesn’t seem like things have slowed down since.

In 2018, Hurricane Michael made landfall in the Florida panhandle, becoming the first category 5 storm to hit the United States since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. 2019 also saw an above average hurricane season with 18 named storms, and 2020, although it was somewhat overshadowed by COVID-19, was the most active and the fifth costliest Atlantic hurricane season on record. Not to mention record breaking fire seasons over the past several years – in 2020 alone, more than 4 million acres were burned in California.

And then came COVID – on March 13, 2020, President Trump declared a nationwide emergency, and eventually every state, commonwealth, territory, and the District of Columbia received a major disaster declaration. During the pandemic, FEMA, with the help of HHS and the private sector coordinated the delivery of more than 600 million N95 respirators, 2.5 billion surgical masks, 131 million face shields, 1.1 billion surgical gowns/coveralls, and more than 56 billion gloves to state, local, tribal, and territorial partners. Well done.

Additionally, FEMA has distributed more than $80 billion dollars in COVID relief and vaccine related expenses, helped to support 2,100 community vaccination centers and assisted in the delivery of more than 371 million vaccines.

I applaud all the work FEMA has done over the past several years and during the pandemic. These are certainly unprecedented times.

Despite the many successes of FEMA during 2020 and before, I think that FEMA is facing multiple challenges today, and will in the years to come.

With the many varying undertakings that FEMA has been given, including now a mission at the border, we must ensure that we have an adequately staffed, well trained, and forward thinking FEMA that is not only prepared for hurricane season, but for whatever challenges lie ahead.

And yet, I have concerns with FEMA’s readiness as well as approach to dealing with state, local, territorial, and tribal entities, and will highlight one of my experiences later in my opening statement. But first, I would like to note what I hope to hear in your testimony today. Among others, I would like to hear your vision for the following:

  • How will you ensure that FEMA is adequately staffed for future disasters due to staff burnout and massive workload as I detailed earlier in my testimony?
  • How will FEMA revamp the recovery process, which is outdated, frustrating for applicants, too bureaucratic and simply takes too long?
  • How does FEMA plan to view grants moving forward – and does FEMA think any changes should be made as we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11?
  • What role can FEMA grants play in shoring up the security of communities who have defunded law enforcement critical to the homeland security mission?
  • How does FEMA view its role in future pandemics – should FEMA be the lead, or should FEMA play a support role?
  • How does FEMA plan to modernize the flood insurance program?
  • What are the future plans for FEMA’s BRIC program, and how will you ensure that this program is truly the transformational program that Congress envisioned?

I am also interested in how FEMA will do more to work with small and rural communities. Not all of us represent large metropolitan areas and I have seen FEMA fall flat when it comes to working with smaller communities in Central New York. I know that my experience is not unique.

As I am sure you are aware, President Trump signed a major disaster declaration for multiple counties in New York due to flooding along Lake Ontario in 2017. Unfortunately, assistance for individuals was denied under this declaration. Similar flooding occurred in 2019, and FEMA Administrator Gaynor visited the region with me to survey the devastating damage.

I disagree with the decision by FEMA and how these requests for assistance were handled. My constituents were left frustrated by the length of time it took for a decision, and the overall lack of transparency in the process.

Additionally, I take issue with the process of FEMA’s Preliminary Damage Assessments.

To improve this process for my constituents and others, I introduced a bill that will improve the efficiency and consistency of the PDA process. My bill establishes an advisory panel of state and local emergency personnel from all 10 FEMA regions to work with FEMA to enhance the PDA process.

In 2020, a previous version of this legislation was passed by the House of Representatives with overwhelming bipartisan support. Ms. Criswell, on behalf of my constituents, I would ask that you look at this legislation and provide any meaningful feedback.

FEMA plays an important role in the Department of Homeland Security. FEMA has a zero-fail mission, needs to be able to respond to disasters at any hour of any day, and across the entire United States, from Puerto Rico to American Samoa. Ms. Criswell, in my two hearings with the Secretary, I have told him that I want to be a constructive Member of Congress and not just throw bombs without offering solutions. I would like to make that same offer to you and be forward looking. I look forward to working with you, and look forward to hearing your testimony and vision for FEMA.

Now I did have some criticisms, but of course there’s many things about FEMA they’re doing well. Lastly, I want to salute the men and women of FEMA who have gone above and beyond their duties during this pandemic and have done yeoman’s work to help us get through this pandemic. I think the entire committee will agree with me that they did a fantastic job.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I yield back.