The longterm effects of the coronavirus pandemic that has afflicted over 1.6 million Americans and led to over 95,000 deaths is going to have a ripple effect on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) which is facing a shortage of trained personnel and looking at a drastic shortage of volunteers as the country prepares for hurricane season and other disasters.
According to a report in the New York Times, FEMA officials are looking at old procedures, such as housing disaster victims in large gymnasiums, is no longer going to work with pandemic continuing with no end in sight.
More importantly the agency depends on volunteers and the pool will be excruciatingly small this year.
The report begins, “For decades, the backbone of the nation’s disaster response system — and a hallmark of American generosity — has been its army of volunteers who race toward danger to help shelter, feed and counsel victims of hurricanes, wildfires and other calamities,” before adding, “However, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed a critical weakness in this system: Most volunteers are older people at higher risk from the virus, so this year they can’t participate in person. Typically more than five million volunteers work in disaster relief annually, said Greg Forrester, president of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, an association of nonprofit groups, but this year he expects the number to decline by 50 percent.”
“A pandemic complicates every aspect of disaster planning and response in a way that we have never experienced before,” explained Chris Currie, who leads the team at the nonpartisan GAO that looks at emergency management. “You’re only as good as the weakest link.”
“Volunteers are key to America’s disaster response, distributing supplies, clearing debris, and rebuilding homes. In interviews, executives with the nonprofit organizations like the Salvation Army that help organize volunteer teams said that, in normal years, they would be training and equipping thousands of people and flying them to whichever part of the country needs help, then housing and feeding them in close quarters,” the report continued, noting the Salvation Army is already sending up a red flag.
“Three-quarters of the Salvation Army’s volunteers for most disasters are 65 or older, according to Jeff Jellets, the group’s disaster coordinator for the southern United States.,” the Times reported, adding Jellets pointed out that older people are at high risk of COVID-19.
“We’re telling them, maybe this isn’t the best time for you to deploy,” he explained.
“The consequences could be enormous: The Salvation Army has more than 2.7 million volunteers annually for everything from disaster response to after-school programs and vocational programs. Disaster volunteers worked 3.5 million hours during the 2017 hurricane season,” the Times goes on to explain. “The Salvation Army is considering using more paid staff and housing them in hotels rather than dormitories. But that’s expensive, Mr. Jellets said, and the pandemic has closed the Salvation Army’s thrift stores, which bring in almost in $600 million annually in sales.”
Habitat for Humanity also finds itself in the same boat, mainly relying on the elderly for help with Jonathan Reckford, the chief executive officer stating Habitat for Humanity is on hiatus right now when it comes to deploying volunteers.
“If a disaster struck a part of the country that was under large-scale quarantine, ‘we would really have to back away from some of our response in those areas,’ Mary Casey-Lockyer, a senior associate with the disaster health program for the American Red Cross, said during a webinar for nonprofits last week. The Red Cross deployed 9,000 workers to large disasters last year; it expects to deploy half as many volunteers as usual in person this year,” the Times reports.
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