In President Obama’s newly released budget request, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) receives a $941.5 million increase, largely driven by an $812 million increase to the Disaster Relief Fund.
While responding to major disasters is an important government responsibility, regrettably, FEMA is responding not just to major catastrophes but to an ever-growing number of smaller disasters that have historically been handled by state governments.
Indeed, under each President since Ronald Reagan, FEMA disaster declarations have grown, with President Obama’s yearly average being nearly five times more than President Reagan’s. This growth in declarations has led to a corresponding growth in the amount of money government spends on disaster relief. Importantly, with FEMA responding to a disaster every 2.5 days on average, it cannot be fully prepared, both in terms of funds and organizational focus, for truly catastrophic disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina or Sandy.
The uptick in disaster declarations is not without reason. The 1988 Stafford Act allowed states to get the federal government to pay for between 75 percent and 100 percent of the disaster response bills so long as FEMA had issued a disaster declaration. As a result, states began to increasingly call for federal help in disasters, decreasing their own preparedness, and thus the vicious cycle took its course. The result is that many states that have relatively few natural disasters end up subsidizing those that have many.
President Obama’s budget serves as a wake-up call: The over-federalization of disaster response is costly and is making the federal government less able to respond to large disasters. Congress should consider changing the Stafford Act to return the responsibility for local disasters to state governments, which can and historically have handled these disasters without federal involvement.