Christopher Flavelle

WASHINGTON — 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.

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.

Asked how disaster relief efforts can meet the usual demand with half as many people, Mr. Forrester said: “You won’t.”

It is the latest in a cascading series of problems facing an already fraying system ahead of what is expected to be an unusually severe hurricane season combined with disasters like this week’s dam collapse and flooding in Michigan, a state particularly hard hit by Covid-19.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is running short of highly trained personnel as the virus depletes its staff. Longstanding procedures for sheltering victims in gymnasiums or other crowded spaces suddenly are dangerous because they risk worsening the pandemic. And traditional agreements among states to help each other if crisis strikes are now sputtering as states remain wary of exposing their own people to the virus.

It amounts to one of the most severe tests in decades for a system designed to respond to local or regional storms or other disasters — not a crisis on a national scale. Yet FEMA has been forced to take a primary role in Covid-19, deploying more than 3,000 staff nationwide and effectively running its first 50-state disaster response.

“A pandemic complicates every aspect of disaster planning and response in a way that we have never experienced before,” said Chris Currie, who leads the team at the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office that looks at emergency management. “You’re only as good as the weakest link.”

FEMA says it has taken steps to prepare for hurricane season, including expanding its coordination center in Washington, hiring staff and working with state and local officials and nonprofits to adapt to the pandemic. “We have not taken our eye off the ball about handling other disasters that may occur during this time,” Peter Gaynor, FEMA’s administrator, said in a briefing this month.

On Wednesday, the agency said it intended to avoid, as much as possible, sending relief staff into disaster zones this year, instead relying on “virtual” assistance such as talking to survivors by phone, using photos or other documentation of storm damage to approve claims and meeting with state and local counterparts online rather than in person.

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.

Suddenly, none of that works.

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. For those people, “We’re telling them, maybe this isn’t the best time for you to deploy,” he said, given that older people are at particularly high risk from Covid-19.

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 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 many of the Salvation Army’s thrift stores, which bring in almost in $600 million annually in sales.

Habitat for Humanity, which last year helped rebuild or repair almost 700 homes damaged by disasters in the United States, also gets many of its volunteers from older Americans, according to Jonathan Reckford, the chief executive officer. Given the risks of air travel combined with the danger that volunteers inadvertently bring the disease into a community they’re trying to help, Mr. Reckford said Habitat for Humanity had hit pause, for now, on deploying any volunteers.

Overall, the organization fielded 1.2 million volunteers last year for all its work. It did not break out a number for disaster response.

That means its group quite likely won’t be able to respond the way it usually does if a hurricane were to strike the United States this year. “It’s our greatest fear right now,” Mr. Reckford said.

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.

“I don’t want to imagine a world where it’s so bad we can’t respond,” added Cathy Earl, director of disaster response for the United Methodist Committee on Relief, which has 10,000 volunteers around the country who work on disaster response. She said it was hard to project how many volunteers would be deployed this year, but called a 50 percent decrease “a reasonable estimate.”

The volunteer shortage threatens to ripple through the nation’s disaster response system, exacerbating other problems.

One spillover effect will be financial. Under federal law, state or local governments typically have to put up $25 for every $75 the federal government provides for disaster relief. But they’re allowed to count the services of volunteers toward that amount, Mr. Forrester said.

As a result, fewer volunteers means cities, counties and states need to come up with more of their own money to get federal aid.

But local governments are already struggling financially from the virus. Counties alone have seen $144 billion in lost income and increased expenditures, more than one-fifth of their total budgets, according to the National Association of Counties. “Our costs are skyrocketing and our revenues are plummeting,” said Paul Guequierre, a spokesman for the association.

At the same time, the federal government is asking local officials to take on new tasks.

One of the toughest challenges will be evacuating and sheltering people without spreading the virus. This week following the dam collapse in Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer acknowledged that social distancing in shelters would be difficult.

This week FEMA advised state and local governments to find backup sources for supplies, find ways to distribute them without physical contact, figure out how to stop disaster survivors from gathering in groups, and to do all that with “diminished support” from volunteers.

In its new guidance, FEMA also laid out a host of new challenges facing disaster shelters. Local officials, it said, must find more space, and come up with a plan to shelter people with Covid-19.

FEMA even urged local officials to revise their plans for dealing with disaster victims’ pets, since spacing rules at shelters means there might not be room for them.

When states don’t have enough people to respond to a disaster, they usually start by asking other states to send their own emergency management teams. But with Covid-19, “They’re not sure what they might need in their own states,” said Joyce Flinn, Iowa’s emergency management director and head of the committee at the National Emergency Management Association that oversees the mutual-aid system.

When those options prove inadequate, cities and states are meant to turn to FEMA for support. However, the agency was already stretched thin as climate change makes disasters more frequent and intense. The virus crisis has stretched it further.

Brock Long, who headed FEMA during the catastrophic hurricanes and wildfires of 2017 and 2018, said there was only so much the agency’s own people could do. “They’re like the sixth man coming off the bench in a basketball game, down by 20, and being told to win the game,” Mr. Long said. “We win and lose together.”

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