The Iowa Caucus was not the only thing folks looking to the 2012 election were talking about this week. Barron’s Washington Editor Jim McTague warned that 2012 is likely to be a banner year for natural disaster declarations. Why? As the numbers show, “In nearly every presidential election year since 1972, there was an increase in disaster declaration; the same holds for the year before the elections.”
Citing Heritage expert Matt A. Mayer, McTague goes on to explain that in 2011, the Obama Administration issued a whopping 242 disaster declarations. This figure was an all-time high and well surpassed the 108 declarations issued by the Administration each year in both 2009 and 2010. It also represents a 54 percent increase over the previous record, set in 1996 when President Bill Clinton was running for reelection.
Election years aren’t the only problem. Since 1993, the number of federal disaster declarations has been climbing quickly. And no, this isn’t some manifestation of 2012 doomsday prophecy coming true. Catastrophic natural disasters are not increasing at the same rate as disaster declarations. Rather, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is granting declarations for a growing number of routine disasters, seemingly for nearly every minor flood, fire, earthquake, and snow storm that comes its way. To put this into perspective:
Hurricane Irene—barely a Category 1 hurricane when it finally struck the U.S.—resulted in Major Disaster Declarations for 12 states, largely for flooding. In sharp contrast, just six years ago, Hurricane Katrina—America’s costliest disaster by tens of billions of dollars, with more than 60,000 square miles impacted—resulted in just four states receiving Major Disaster Declarations.
Ultimately, this means that the costs of response to and recovery from our nation’s natural disasters are increasingly being shifted from the states in which they occurred to the federal government. It should be no wonder that FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) nearly ran out of money last year.
Yet 2012 need not necessarily follow the election-year trend. By setting clear requirements that limit the types of disasters eligible for a federal disaster declaration and reducing the federal cost-share for disaster declarations to no more than 25 percent, the Administration has the chance to stop abusing FEMA declarations and reverse the trend.
See our chart below for a list of FEMA declarations by year and presidential administration.