WASHINGTON, DC – Today, during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, Ranking Member Rob Portman (R-OH), pressed Deanne Criswell, the nominee to be Administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), on the request for FEMA to provide disaster assistance to address the surge of migrants at our southern border when President Biden has not issued an emergency declaration. Portman recently traveled to the southern border in El Paso, Texas, where he witnessed firsthand the ongoing migrant and unaccompanied children crisis, including situations where children were held in close quarters and unable to adhere to CDC distancing guidelines.
In addition, Senator Portman highlighted the importance of expanding FEMA assistance to schools that reopened safely in 2020 under the new COVID-19 protocols. Currently, only schools that have or will reopen in 2021 are eligible to receive reimbursements from FEMA. Portman is a strong proponent of safely reopening schools and believes every school that has reopened should receive federal assistance to ensure they have all the safety and personal protective gear they need to operate safely.
A transcript of the exchange can be found below and a video can be found here.
Portman: “Thank you, Chairman Peters. So, Commissioner Criswell, we had a chance to talk about this during our conversation, but as you know we have led efforts here in this Committee to ensure that FEMA’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program is effective in providing protection to synagogues, other places of worship, nonprofits. We have increased the funding, we’ve ensured that it doesn’t just go to urban areas. Have you had much experience with the Nonprofit Security Grant Program?”
Deanne B. Criswell, Nominee to be Administrator, Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Department of Homeland Security: “Senator, I have not had personal experience with the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, but I do understand the importance of having a program like this as we continue to see more soft target attacks across our country. The Nonprofit Security Grant Program is an excellent tool to help these soft targets and these nonprofit organizations build their resilience and harden their infrastructure to be better prepared for them.”
Portman: “Part of the concern that I’ve had is sustainability and the need for local communities to work with the local police departments and in coordination with FEMA, so if you’ll focus on that. Also, this notion that it’s not just about money, I don’t think the funding is all this is about. It’s also about providing good counsel, advice, recommendations. As an example, you know, ensuring that there’s proper hardening of the facilities. That the cameras are in the right place, and so on. So, I hope you will work with us on that too, to make sure that this is about providing best practices and expertise and be sure that those states and areas, rural and suburban, that are not using the program yet understand the use of the program. I assume that you would be committed to trying to do that?”
Ms. Criswell: “Senator, absolutely. It’s my understanding that the funding for that program was recently increased. So I think it’s incredibly important that outreach is done so communities do know that this resource is available to them and then provide technical assistance so they can make the most advantage of it to help themselves.”
Portman: “Great, let me ask you about the southern border. We talked, again, a little about this. FEMA has now been called into service to support the response to the ongoing crisis that’s occurring at the southern border although no disaster declaration has been issued. Is it your understanding that the Stafford Act requires the president to first to declare a disaster before public assistance can be used to care for migrants?”
Ms. Criswell: “Senator my understanding of FEMA’s role on the southern border is providing support to HHS and CBP in the execution of their missions. I have not been briefed on their specific activities that they’re performing. But through the Economy Act, federal agencies can provide support to one another as they execute their missions.”
Portman: “My feeling, I was just down at the border, is that FEMA’s role can be advisory but the public assistance is not appropriate unless there’s a disaster declaration. If migrants are arriving with COVID, which seems to be the hook for FEMA to be there, isn’t the best way to address this stopping the surge rather than warehousing arriving children in close quarters?”
Ms. Criswell: “Senator, again, I’m not familiar with the details of exactly what support FEMA is providing, but I do understand that they are providing assistance with a small footprint to assist HHS and CBP with their mission. In particular of trying to identify locations to provide the sheltering for the migrants.”
Portman: “We’ll have an opportunity to talk about that more once we understand better what the mission is. In terms of openings for schools, I’m a big fan of re-opening our schools. According to the Congressional Research Service, all 50 states have now had some schools reopen. My home state of Ohio has opened a lot of schools. Thus far, FEMA has only made reimbursements for schools re-opening and operating in this year, 2021. If confirmed would you commit to reviewing the decision to leave behind these schools that reopened back in 2020 and report back with whether there will be a change in eligibility for all schools that have safely reopened under the new COVID-19 protocols?”
Ms. Criswell: “Senator you know my experience in New York City has been very similar to what you just explained of really trying to make sure that schools are opened. It’s one of the first things that we can do as a nation to really move towards recovery. The guidance that has come out of FEMA throughout this time has changed and been kind of vague at times, and so if confirmed, I am committed to seeing where the current policy is with re-opening schools and what’s reimbursable, and working with you and your staff to better understand your challenges and issues.”
Portman: “Okay, well I think that’s really important, again, not to leave those schools behind that made the decision in 2020 to go ahead and continue educating our kids and did so in a safe manner.
“Many of the recent GAO and Inspector General reports covering FEMA highlight significant challenges in managing risks inherent in any emergency and disaster response. Specifically, GAO reports that FEMA is too focused on eligibility and compliance, and too little focused on fraud prevention. As an example, the Inspector General recently reported that FEMA made more than $3 billion in improper and potentially fraudulent home repair payments since 2003. What are ways that you have mitigated the risk of fraud in your program as commissioner in New York City and will you commit to me that should you be confirmed, you will prioritize fraud prevention and program design in every response during your tenure at FEMA?”
Ms. Criswell: “Senator it’s an incredibly important topic. With the amount of contracts and funding that’s distributed during the initial phases of a disaster, it always opens up the opportunity for the potential for fraud. During my time in New York City, and in particular, during our response to COVID-19, we executed more emergency contracts than we ever have. And we put in place internal controls and auditing measures to make sure that we were trying to mitigate fraud as much as we could. In fact, we even reached out to the city’s Department of Investigation to engage them early on so we could help identify potential issues ahead of time and put appropriate mechanisms in place to try to prevent fraud. If confirmed Senator, I’m certainly committed to making sure that we have the appropriate internal controls and measures in place to audit the programs all while being very good stewards of the taxpayer dollar.”
Portman: “Well, good. I hope you work with your IG and we certainly work closely with GAO on that and that we will continue to have oversight over that. By the way, the Committee has oversight over a number of things, including the response to COVID, and we hope that you will be responsive to legitimate requests from the Committee. We talked about that and you said that you would be. Can you just affirm that here in the public hearing?”
Ms. Criswell: “Yes Senator, I commit to cooperating with any of the hearings on the investigations that you’re doing.”
Portman: “The final thing for me is the mitigation efforts, and along the shore of Lake Erie, unfortunately, we have more erosion as waters have risen and I believe it’s cost-effective. Senator Peters has the same issue, I’m sure, with Lake Michigan and he’s talked about that. But we have a real interest in providing funding upfront for mitigation because we think it’s more cost-effective to be able to deal with the problem and prepare for it rather than try to fight erosion once it occurs. Would you commit to working with us on that?”
Ms. Criswell: “Yes Senator. You know the new, again, BRIC Program, Building Resilient Infrastructure in Communities, is an excellent opportunity for us to have a transformational approach to how we prevent risk and reduce risk ahead of disasters. With the committed funding stream and the larger federal share, I think communities really have an opportunity to do widespread community-wide projects to really help address some of the things that you’re talking about. So if confirmed, I would really appreciate the opportunity to work with you and your staff to better understand the challenges you’re facing, as well as making sure communities understand and can take advantage of this new important resource.”
Portman: “Great, look forward to working with you on that. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”