Disaster management is over-federalized. This chart from a recent Heritage Backgrounder, The Local Role in Disaster Response: Lessons from Katrina and the California Wildfires, makes it abundantly clear. With the exception of the Johnson and Reagan administrations, the number of federal disaster declarations has steadily and dramatically grown. By the end of President Bush’s second term, the average yearly declarations for this administration will be at 130 –nearly a 50 percent increase from the Clinton administration’s yearly average of 88. In other words, FEMA takes on a new declaration every 3 days.
This trend is not good. As the government declares more and more federal disasters, it stretches FEMA thinner and thinner. Although the number of declarations has increased, the agency’s budget and staff have not. In fact, the number of FEMA employees has dropped by 500 since 1993. What’s worse, states and localities are coming to depend on the federal government to step in; they aren’t sufficiently developing their capabilities and preparedness plans.
It is essential that state and local governments take a leading role in disaster management. After all, even when the federal government steps in, typically 72 hours elapse before aid arrives; state and local governments need to be able to take charge of response during that time. Not to mention, with decades worth of actuarial data available on natural disasters, state and local officials know what disasters are most likely to strike their area and can prepare accordingly.
States and localities shouldn’t become dependent on the federal government declaring a disaster and moving in; they must prepare themselves to lead.