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When to Call in the Big Guns

September 22, 2010

A few months back, I found an article out of the Heritage Foundation (admittedly political), Federalizing Disasters Weakens FEMA – and Hurts Americans Hit by Catastrophes, that specifically addressed the role of FEMA in disaster response. Most of the article, frankly, talked about things that I’m no expert (or even novice) on; but the idea of the article, one of the three Long-Term Recovery Challenges noted by the authors, and two of the final recommendations are simple enough for even me to understand — and highly relevant to the work that we do every day.

The authors, Mayer and DeBosier, argue that FEMA is stretched too thinly to appropriately respond to catastrophes and coordinate the long-term recovery associated with those catastrophes. They feel that FEMA has increasingly been responding to emergencies and disasters more traditionally associated with county- and state-level response. A natural outcome of this shift in response responsibility (the authors call it “federalization”) is that states and locals came to depend on the new federal aid, and subsequently reduced their capacity for response to localized disasters (three-county floods, the authors use as an example). To wit, FEMA is spending the bulk of their resources on responding to these (on a grand scale) small disasters, and they argue that has hampered FEMAs ability to coordinate the recovery of something big, catastrophic, like Hurricane Katrina.

(To be completely honest, the authors also assert that bureaucratic inefficiencies play a large role in strangling the recovery of the Gulf region.)

In their recommendations, the authors posit the assumption that FEMA is over-tasked and under-resourced. In that light, they feel that Congress should simplify FEMAs work by redefining what they can respond to. Maybe only Category 1 and above hurricanes. Additionally, they feel that Congress should recalculate the minimum dollar threshold for requesting federal disaster assistance (I would argue this figure should be tied to a local inflation index instead of a blanket nation-wide figure).

And then there’s the big one. They argue that Congress should administratively limit the types of disasters that FEMA can respond to, concentrating solely on larger, more regionally affective disasters. Freezes, droughts, thunderstorms and even some tornadoes shouod fall under the purview of the local and state government. Putting aside FEMAs traditional role in flood response, localized flooding could be added to that list, and snowstorms, too. Basically, they argue that local and state governments and private insurance companies can respond more quickly, and appropriately, to local disasters than putting the full weight of the federal government in play. As an example, 2009 flooding in northwest Louisiana was given a major disaster declaration and should have received about $10 million from FEMA to assist with recovery. Staffing the JFO in this situation is budgeted at $6 million dollars, the cost of the major disaster declaration is actually 60% higher than reported, all to respond to a disaster confined to a single state.

So, what do youthink? Is FEMA over-tasked? I know that what the authors are proposing would have real repercussions (we had snowstorms here this past winter that received federal recovery funding, all of that would go away in this scenario), but it’s certainly an interesting way to look at the current situation.

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