A tornado touched down on March 28 in Jonesboro, Arkansas, flattening several streets worth of buildings and injuring 22 people. Normally, such a disaster would be all over the news, and volunteers would get the alert to rush into action.

These aren't normal times, and the local sheriff begged everyone to stay home.

Two weeks earlier, nearly a dozen tornados had ripped through Nashville. The damage was enough that a federal emergency was declared and the Federal Emergency Management Agency dispatched aid workers. But by mid-March, FEMA changed its mind and ordered the vast majority of disaster assistant teams and personnel manning recovery centers to work remotely. Survivors were told to apply for aid online.

Managers of both nonprofit and government agencies that respond to disasters see 2020 shaping up to be a stress test of a system that is bound to fail. Because of Covid-19, the number of major disaster declarations that FEMA is managing has jumped from 43 at the beginning of March to 97 as of April 10th.

A Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) wo inspects an area submerged in floodwaters after Hurricane Florence hit in Wallace, North Carolina, U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018. The Ports of Wilmington and Morehead City in North Carolina have re-opened with restrictions to marine traffic after Hurricane Florence swept through late last week, halting shipments of everything from fertilizer to textiles. Photographer: Callaghan O'Hare/Bloomberg
We're all learning what these managers say they’ve known for a long time: Even though the U.S. has a national emergency agency, it is not really designed to handle an emergency that is national in scope. FEMA is designed to handle, at most, a few state-by-state disasters at a time. In fact, the system explicitly counts on having the ability to move resources from one state to another as needed.

“None of us, and by ‘us’ I mean FEMA, the Red Cross, or anyone” anticipated an event overtaking the whole country at once, says Greg Forrester, president and chief executive officer of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (Nvoad), one of the many non-governmental organizations that FEMA relies on for backup. “And none of us has the resources to sustain a response like this.”

Nvoad is a coalition of mostly faith-based organizations that sends millions of volunteers to disaster areas. Normally, they have stockpiles of protective gear such as N95 masks and hazmat suits, but at the beginning of the virus crisis they handed those over to hospitals and other essential workers with confidence that the supplies would be replenished. That has not happened. Most of Nvoad volunteers are over 60, which means that without equipment, Forrester says, they'll be told to stay home.

“We have built our systems around what we can handle instead of what might occur,” says Craig Fugate, who ran FEMA during the Obama administration. This is particularly the case as climate change constantly raises the bar on what is possible. Nearly every year sets records for storms, floods and fires.

Since leaving FEMA, Fugate has focused on trying to get state and local governments to prepare for the more intense emergencies of the future by, to take one example, changing building codes to account for increased precipitation and flooding.

Although the U.S. spends billions every year on disaster, it has not taken national disaster preparedness seriously enough. That's the lesson learned by the residents of Nashville and Jonesboro in recent weeks. We are still planning for the past. As Fugate puts it: “We need to think bigger.”

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