The fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and all its attendant devastation, is a good reminder that the federalization of natural disasters by the Federal Emergency Management Agency continues uninterrupted. From January 20, 2010 to today, FEMA has issued 78 declarations, including for Hurricane Alex—a storm that never actually hit Texas (a little rain doesn’t count).
That figure puts FEMA on pace to issue 141 declarations by January 19, 2011, which would be the fifth most in FEMA history. With the 108 declarations issued in his first year, President Barack Obama would possess a two-year average of 124.5, which is just short of the record average of 129.5 set by George W. Bush over his eight years. Unlike during President Bush’s Administration, we have not had a single hurricane hit the United States and only one relatively minor earthquake, so the trend of defining disasters down also continues uninterrupted.
This federalization comes at a steep price as states and localities de-fund emergency management and move the funds to more critical needs that aren’t being subsidized federally (yes, there are still a few things left) and as FEMA spends valuable resources on the routine natural disasters that strike America with predictable regularity (floods, fires, storms, etc.) With the predictions of a hurricane season as active as 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit, FEMA needs to be ready for the truly catastrophic event. It isn’t.
After years of talk and millions in funding, FEMA still lacks a true real-time, in-transit system that allows it to seamlessly move resources and know what it possesses, where in the supply chain its resources are, and how to most effectively supply disaster relief areas. In stark contrast, the private sector has what FEMA only dreams about. Specifically, Home Depot has a system that allows it to do everything FEMA wants to do—and far more rapidly. FEMA probably has the best administrator it has ever had in Craig Fugate. Fugate, who hails from the hurricane bulls-eye known as Florida, knows better than anyone the importance of a vibrant state and local emergency management capability. Why can’t he make any headway in fixing what has been busted for two decades? He is likely trying, but, as James Lee Witt famously commented, natural disasters are “inherently political events.” Politics always trumps common sense.
Thank goodness there is always the private sector….