WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) – FEMA is best known for coordinating responses to natural disasters, like tornadoes and hurricanes, with state and local governments.
But now, the federal agency has taken on a new job: leading the response to the coronavirus crisis.
“This is an historic response,” said FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor.
For the first time in U.S. history, the coronavirus crisis has prompted a major disaster declaration for every state, the five territories and Washington, DC.
“We have a pretty big footprint across the country,” Gaynor said.
FEMA was assigned the lead role in March after the pandemic began spreading in the U.S. The agency has been playing catch-up ever since. Some governors have criticized its efforts to obtain and distribute supplies, but Gaynor stands by FEMA’s coordination between the federal, state and local levels.
“This thing [coronavirus] is so immense that it takes the whole of America, whole of community to do this,” he said.
According to FEMA’s latest COVID-19 numbers, the agency has shipped close to a billion pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE), like masks, gloves and gowns, to healthcare workers and first responders. FEMA has also helped states set up 68 alternate care sites for patients and test more than 100,000 people at community-based testing sites.
“To make sure that we understand how widespread the coronavirus is and get people back to work,” Gaynor said.
FEMA is also in charge of directing some of the coronavirus relief funds Congress has passed during the pandemic, including money for PPE for fire departments and food for local nonprofits.
“We enable those governors to do everything they need to do to protect their citizens,” Gaynor said.
As more governors decide to reopen their states, FEMA is also preparing for flooding and hurricane season in the new COVID-19 environment.
“Typically, we put people into congregate shelters. It can be tight and packed in,” Gaynor said. “But now, you have to use social distancing, you have to think about hygiene, about all of those things we took for granted before COVID-19.”