This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
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In this election year when the right side of the political spectrum is demanding less federal government involvement in every aspect of American life and, in light of Hurricane Sandy, it's time to take a brief look at federal disaster relief.
The federal disaster response system harkens back to September 1950 when Congress approved the Federal Disaster Relief Act, designed to provide limited assistance during disasters, largely designed to prove to the USSR and the American public that a nuclear war was survivable. Blurred lines between wartime civil defense and natural disaster reliefs caused problems, particularly since the Cold War was in full swing and protection of civilian populations from foreign attack seemed more critical. In 1961, President Kennedy separated civil defense into two agencies; the Office of Civil Defense under the Department of Defense that was responsible for shelters and stockpiling and the Office of Emergency Planning (which became the Office of Emergency Preparedness in 1968) which was responsible for civilian preparedness including disaster relief. Within Housing and Urban Development, the Federal Insurance Administration was created in 1968 to provide flood, riot and crime insurance. In 1979, the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA was established bringing together dozens of agencies under one banner. The passing of the Stafford Emergency and Disaster Relief Act in 1988 provides orderly assistance from the federal level to both state and local governments with a mandate to provide relief from hardships related to disasters. In March 2003, FEMA became an agency of the Department of Homeland Security after national security from terrorists became a headline issue. After the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, Congress amended the Stafford Act, allowing accelerated federal assistance without a state request when the president declares a "major disaster" and action is necessary to prevent further suffering. Even included in these legislative changes was assistance for individuals with pets and service animals.
Under Title V of the Stafford Act, State Governors must specifically request assistance from the President when they deem an emergency to be beyond their management capabilities. The federal share of costs in this case is no less than 75 percent of total costs to a maximum of $5,000,000 unless the President determines otherwise. Funds are designated to repair, restore or replace public facilities of all types. Funds can also be used for emergency assistance including overtime payments for response personnel. Assistance for debris removal is also provided but only for debris on public lands, for example, roads may be cleared of debris to allow the public access to their homes. Once the request is made, the Federal Emergency Management Agency manages all aspects of the federal response including assistance for such items as repairing of infrastructure, crisis counseling, unemployment assistance etcetera. While the Stafford Act mandates a 75 percent assistance rate as a minimum, cost-sharing of FEMA's response can be adjusted by the President.
The Stafford Act does not provide Americans that are displaced by a disaster the ability to participate in government decisions that affect the recovery. In addition, any replacement housing, healthcare and education is done solely at the discretion of the federal government, it is not a requirement. A study by William C. Banks notes the following additional problems with the current system:
1.) Actual emergency response tends to be more chaotic than it is hierarchical.
2.) America's urban communities are more interconnected with vulnerable modes of transportation, communication and public utilities. This lack of resilience makes America's infrastructure very vulnerable to both natural disasters and terrorist attacks.
3.) The federal government has provided states and local governments with poor planning and confusing mandates, paying disproportionate attention to less likely terrorist attacks than to more likely natural disasters.
4.) Coordination plans are generally untested and there is no assigned leadership to manage the coordination (right, Brownie?).
Here is a map from FEMA showing which states are currently experiencing or have recently experienced an active disaster:
In looking through the list of disasters under management, FEMA assistance is being granted in cases where states require assistance related to forest fires, flooding, tornados, severe storms and winds.
For 2013, the Department of Homeland Security requested a budget of $39.5 billion in net discretionary spending. An additional $5.5 billion was requested for the Disaster Relief Fund. FEMA's budget request was for $13,559,716,000 with a net discretionary amount of $10.009 billion after fees and trust fund inputs. In 2011 alone, FEMA obligated $5.6 billion in Individual Assistance, (housing, crisis counseling, legal services and unemployment assistance) and Public Assistance (clearing debris and rebuilding infrastructure).
Interestingly, state governors are more likely to request federal aid in election years, particularly when they happen to head a swing state but not when they cannot stand for re-election. A study by John T. Gapser and Andrew Reeves states the following:
"While all governors request as a function of need, opportunistic governors request because they anticipate the president will be more likely to give them aid. This expectation is based on states’ electoral importance to presidents. Given conventional political wisdom supported by academic research, we assume that an opportunistic governor acts with the knowledge that presidents use disaster declarations to gain votes; this will cause these governors’ requests to be influenced by presidential electoral incentives.".
Governors will even request aid when it will help the other party's incumbent; this was apparent today at New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's press conference where he appeared to be quite pleased with the response of President Obama.
As the days pass between now and the November 6th election, it will be interesting to watch the interplay between the incumbent president, his Republican competitor and the governors of the Hurricane Sandy-ravaged states as the need for federal assistance becomes more and more apparent. And, just in case you've forgotten, here's what Mr. Romney had to say about FEMA during a Republican candidates debate earlier this year, suggesting that he would put FEMA in the hands of the private sector:
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