Politics, Hurricanes and FEMA

By Stephen Recca, M.A.

With the recent wildfires in Colorado and across the country still fresh in our minds and in light of the latest destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in the northeastern portion of the United States, we are ever more aware of the power and unpredictability of natural disasters. As our nation begins to heal and process this recent tragedy, our faculty leaders will offer their insights on disaster preparedness.

Superstorm SandyIn the dark alleys of presidential politics, there have been whispered (really, shouted) rumors that one of the candidates would eliminate the Federal Emergency Management Agency – FEMA – in order to reduce the deficit. In the nature of political word-gaming, the rumors were timed with the onset of the nation’s most recent natural disaster – Hurricane Sandy, which struck the northeast United States on Oct. 29-30, causing wind, storm surge and flooding damage in the billions of dollars (predictions approach $50 billion) and leading to the deaths of at least 110 people. The short-term recovery effort to re-open roads, subways, schools, and businesses is underway at the time of writing; the long-term recovery will take years to complete.

So, what about FEMA?
What would natural disasters look like without the agency? Maybe the right starting point is to understand what FEMA does, and how it goes about its work. From the agency’s website, FEMA’s mission is to “… support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards.” One could assume from the mission statement that FEMA has purely a support role, with local first responders and our neighbors in the front seat driving the emergency response bus. For the most part, that’s true. FEMA is a supporting and coordinating agency, working at the federal level. It is not a first responder in the sense of FEMA troops on the ground piling sandbags, distributing food, and directing evacuation traffic. Those are, in fact, state and local missions, with federal forces – usually the military – called in to support when the situation overwhelms a state’s resources.

Some additional elements in FEMA’s job-jar include (from the DHS Secretary’s Annual Budget in Brief):

  • Key Responsibilities:
    FEMA manages and coordinates the Federal response to and recovery from major domestic disasters and emergencies of all types, in accordance with the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. The Agency coordinates programs to improve the effectiveness of emergency response providers at all levels of government to respond to terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies.
  • Service to the Public:
    Through the Disaster Relief Fund (DRF), FEMA provides individual and public assistance to help families and communities impacted by declared disasters to rebuild and recover. FEMA is also responsible for helping to prepare State and local governments, through their State and local grants and technical assistance, to prevent or respond to threats, incidents of terrorism, or other events. FEMA also administers hazard mitigation programs that reduce the risk to life and property from floods and other hazards. FEMA provides rapid assistance and resources in emergency situations whenever State and local capabilities are overwhelmed or seriously threatened. At disaster locations, FEMA leads the Federal response and recovery efforts by providing emergency management expertise and coordinating critical support resources from across the country.

Resource Limitations
FEMA Regional MapFEMA does all of this through 10 regional offices and a fairly small headquarters staff. The agency’s annual budget of around $10 billion  seems significant. And, it is. But, the budget also includes a mandatory fund for the National Flood Insurance Program and state and local preparedness grants. The net remaining operating budget to perform the mission – disaster relief fund (i.e., writing checks, post-event), emergency food and shelters, hazard mitigation and training efforts – is around $3 billion. Still a good amount of money, but one might confuse this with money lost through accounting errors in the Defense Department’s $525 billion, fiscal 2013 budget request.

Disaster without FEMA?
So, what happens in the event of a disaster without FEMA? The sandbags will still get filled, food still will be served by incredibly generous volunteers, roads will be cleared from fallen trees and debris, and water will still get pumped from subway tunnels and basements. What will be missing, though, is a coordinated federal response, from writing checks to establishing regional emergency shelters and managing the full spectrum of national capabilities offered by the federal government. And, on the front end – the left side of the “boom” – without FEMA we would lose the agency’s efforts to mitigate (funding removal fire hazards from the wildland-urban interface and building storm surge barriers) and prepare state and local first responders through equipment purchases, training, and education.

Not that we should forego the intellectual exercise in finding a better way to prepare for, respond to, recover from and mitigate hazards. Perhaps, before tossing proverbial baby out with the floodwaters, we should be mindful of understanding what is needed and what works now.

It’s your turn to weigh-in. Do you think FEMA adds value or detracts from disaster relief efforts?

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