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After a year of historic natural disasters, what would happen to FEMA if the government shuts down?

If Congress doesn't reach agreement on crucial immigration issues and pass a spending bill, the costly consequence would be another government shutdown. (Video: Joyce Koh, Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

As lawmakers continue trying to pass a long-term spending bill — or yet another temporary stopgap measure — to avoid a government shutdown before Friday at midnight, many federal employees are watching negotiations closely, wondering about the short-term fate of their jobs.

But some are also keeping a close eye on Capitol Hill talks with apprehension about how a shutdown might affect the Federal Emergency Management Agency as it comes off a year of natural disasters described as “historic on many levels” — and as FEMA-aided recovery continues in affected areas in Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida and California.

Because FEMA is run by the Department of Homeland Security, which has in the past continued to receive funding during government shutdowns, former agency officials say it is common for lawmakers to brush off concerns a shutdown would adversely affect the agency’s operations.

“The Republicans like to say [a shutdown is] not a big deal because they say DHS stays on the clock because they’re exempt,” former FEMA administrator W. Craig Fugate told The Washington Post. “At FEMA that’s not true.”

More than 3,000 of FEMA’s estimated 15,815 onboard employees would be suspended in the event of a government shutdown, according to the Homeland Security Department’s contingency plan for a lapse in appropriations. The plan was last updated in 2015.

Fugate, who led the agency from 2009 to 2017 under President Barack Obama, said most of FEMA’s workforce can indeed be dispatched to emergencies regardless of a shutdown because they are funded out of the Disaster Relief Fund, which is not affected by a lapse in appropriations.

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During the most recent government shutdown, in October 2013, FEMA furloughed nearly all its full-time staff members who were deemed nonessential, Fugate said. That had an effect on the agency’s administrative support and its employees’ overall morale as the agency continued to respond to emergencies.

“For us at FEMA, it’s a huge deal,” Fugate said. “We ended up furloughing 85 to 90 percent of our career folks . . . Who do you think processes the payments? Who do you think does all that back-end stuff? IT stuff? Plus, if you have policy issues, there’s no one to turn to.”

Fugate is among those who say a shutdown would add stress to an agency that has been pushed to the limit in the past year by a spate of especially catastrophic natural disasters. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria made landfall in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, respectively, and a series of major wildfires hit California, including the Thomas Fire, now the largest in the state’s history.

From those disasters alone, FEMA approved a staggering number of applications for individual aid directly related to the disasters as they struck: 367,895 in Texas from Hurricane Harvey; 768,411 in Florida from Hurricane Irma; 407,532 in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria; and 4,346 from the California wildfires. An even larger number of applications came to the agency after the disasters. FEMA received nearly 900,000 requests for individual aid after Hurricane Harvey in Texas; in Florida, the number topped 2 million for applications related to damage from Hurricane Irma.

Current FEMA spokespeople declined to comment on the possibility of a shutdown, referring all questions to the Office of Management and Budget. OMB representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

House Republicans and White House officials have remained cautiously optimistic about avoiding a government shutdown with a short-term spending bill, despite the protests of some who complained such a bill would just delay the problem.

It seemed a far cry from rhetoric that took place in 2015, when the threat of another government shutdown loomed, and both Republican and Democratic lawmakers took to extremes to discuss what a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security would look like. Then, Democrats accused Republicans of “putting American national security at risk,” while Republicans downplayed Democrats’ concerns as “all about politics.”

“This is a debate over funding a part of government so essential that if funding is not there, almost all of the employees show up anyway,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said in a Senate floor speech at the time. “They’re considered essential.”

As The Post’s Michelle Ye Hee Lee outlined in a fact-check of lawmakers’ concerns in 2015, what unfolded in the shutdown of 2013 was more nuanced:

About 31,295 DHS employees were placed on furlough during the shutdown, according to the congressional Research Service (CRS). But about 85 percent of its more than 200,000 civilian and military employees were deemed essential to the agency’s operations and continued to work without pay. . . . About a quarter of total furloughs came from the management, research, training and operational functions of DHS. But these were smaller administrative departments, and they took a big cut to their staff of 90-plus percent.
DHS had a small percentage of furloughs relative to its size, and its core functions relating to national security continued. But the funding lapse shut down many programs, including non-disaster grants, federal law enforcement training, the FEMA Flood Risk Mapping program and the chemical site security regulatory program. The shutdown also disrupted procurement activities, which was a notable impact for a federal agency with the sixth-largest procurement spending, according to the CRS.

“As it goes in heated political debates, the reality is somewhere in the middle,” Lee wrote.

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Fugate, the FEMA administrator under Obama, can clearly remember heading the agency as the government prepared to shut down in 2013. In the first days of the shutdown, Tropical Storm Karen formed along the Gulf Coast, but FEMA’s nearly 4,000 furloughed employees were left to observe the approaching storm.

“We had to figure out workarounds so that people could at least monitor their emails,” Fugate said. “They could monitor their emails but they couldn’t respond to or act on anything. . . . We could watch it, but we couldn’t do anything about it.”

FEMA ended up recalling 240 staff members and reactivating the National Response Coordination Center in Washington to respond to the storm.

“Even then, we couldn’t support them administratively or prepare for any potential recovery efforts — a major detriment to our mission to support survivors,” Fugate wrote in a February 2015 blog post.

Former FEMA director James Lee Witt, who worked at the agency under President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 2001, recalled a similar experience when the government shut down — twice, technically — early in his tenure, first when nonessential federal services were suspended for six days in November 1995 and then again from Dec. 16, 1995, to Jan. 6, 1996.

The shutdowns cut his staff to a “skeleton crew” at FEMA headquarters, Witt said.

“We knew we had money to deal with the disasters. That was no problem, because it was already appropriated,” Witt said. “Our main concern was taking care of employees as well as making sure we could maintain whatever we could in-house and taking care of the critical things. It was just trying to keep the ship moving, you know.”

He added that the shutdowns had a direct impact on employee morale.

“That kind of thing is depressing to employees,” Witt said. “A lot of people don’t realize how hard they work, how committed they were to make a difference . . . We just kept them posted, what was going on, just hoping it would end as quickly as possible.”

Though Witt was relieved no major disasters struck during those shutdowns, the experience left him hoping lawmakers would “use a little common sense” and avoid them in the future. He has been monitoring the current congressional stalemate from Arkansas, where he now lives.

“I hope and pray that they don’t do a shutdown. It’s not good for the country. It’s not good for federal agencies,” Witt said. “I think it’s totally irresponsible of both parties.”

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