The Federal Emergency Management Agency has stepped up its role in coordinating the government’s overall response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, while the Department of Health and Human Services continues to lead the health and medical response.
President Donald Trump was expected to explain FEMA’s role during a teleconference Thursday with the nation’s governors from the agency’s headquarters, but he did not. Earlier, at the White House, Vice President Mike Pence said officials intended to “meet at the National Response Coordination Center at FEMA and outline President Trump’s decision to have FEMA take the lead in our national coronavirus response.”
In a Tweet, FEMA said it was leading the federal coordination on behalf of HHS and the White House in response to Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. FEMA said its coordination center was active and that it was readying more than 50 teams to deploy across the U.S. to activate emergency operations centers.
Since February, Pence has led the White House Coronavirus Task Force, which he took over from HHS Secretary Alex Azar and added Deborah Birx as White House coronavirus response coordinator.
This latest shift in power puts significant coordinating responsibility on an agency still trying to rehabilitate its image after much-criticized recovery efforts in Puerto Rico severely damaged by Hurricane Maria in September 2017.
“This effort through FEMA will be locally executed, state managed and federally supported,” Pence said at FEMA’s headquarters. “We are absolutely determined at the president’s direction to make sure that you have the resources and the support as you see to the health and well-being of your communities,” the vice president told the governors.
Level 1 Response
The National Response Coordination Center was activated for the pandemic at the highest level, Level 1, meaning the incident requires “an extreme amount” of direct federal assistance for response and recovery efforts. It also requires full staffing and all emergency support functions and interagency liaisons.
“With a disaster of this magnitude, it was inevitable that FEMA would play a lead role,” said Daniel Kaniewski, managing director, public sector, at Marsh & McLennan Advantage, a risk management consulting firm. Prior to joining the firm in March, Kaniewski was FEMA’s deputy administrator for resilience, the agency’s second-ranking official.
The overall response by the federal government is much more complex than just the health and medical response and involves many other departments and agencies. It might include building field hospitals or retrofitting buildings, for example. The president’s declaration of a national emergency gives FEMA the resources and authority to assign departments and agencies across government to do those tasks.
“FEMA’s the federal government’s one-stop shop for disaster response,” Kaniewski said.