In the continuing (over)reaction to the failures of Hurricane Katrina five years ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) once again “leaned forward” in anticipation of a hurricane. For all of its activities in response to Hurricane Dean in 2009, FEMA spent north of $50 million for what amounted to a cloudy day in Houston, as Dean never got close to hitting Texas. Despite the fact that few expected Earl to actually hit the United States, FEMA issued disaster declarations to North Carolina and Massachusetts. Other than some larger waves, stronger winds, and heavier rain, nothing about the storm was of such “severity and magnitude” that the states couldn’t handle Earl on their own.
It is high time for governors to stiffen their spines and FEMA to get its finger off the declaration trigger.
Since his inauguration, President Barack Obama has issued 195 FEMA declarations despite the fact that not a single hurricane has hit the United States in that time span and only one minor earthquake has occurred. In less than two years, FEMA under President Obama has issued more declarations than the Eisenhower (106), Kennedy (52), Johnson (93), Ford (101), Carter (176), and H.W. Bush (174) Administrations and only slightly fewer than the Nixon (212) and Reagan (225) Administrations did throughout their entire presidencies. President Obama’s 20-month figure outpaces the Clinton Administration, which didn’t hit its 195th FEMA declaration until its 38th month, and even bests the record-setting Bush Administration’s FEMA declaration pace, as that Administration didn’t issue its 195th FEMA declaration until September 25, 2002—three weeks after the Obama Administration did.
As we have long argued, this country needs to get FEMA out of the routine natural disaster business and reserve its capabilities for catastrophic events. At the same time, states need to take back the roles they had in natural disasters from 1787 to 1993. Failure to make these changes will only result in more $50 million false alarms, atrophied state capabilities, and a FEMA worn down by the operational tempo of a new declaration every 2–3 days.