Another Federal Program Is Not the Answer to Deal with Natural Disasters
Matt Mayer /
It is heartbreaking to see the destroyed homes, scattered possessions, and lives shattered by recent tornadoes in Alabama, Missouri and elsewhere. Many have lost loved ones and businesses while large parts of communities have been tragically leveled. Yet creating a new federal program would not be a worthy response to the plight of those affected by the twisters.
However, the Obama Administration—known for, in the words of former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, not letting “a good crisis go to waste”—wants to use the recent disaster to grow government unnecessarily, again.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security Deputy Secretary James Loy and former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator James Lee Witt are blatantly using the recent destruction and weather-related headlines to renew a push for a federal program at a cost that will far outstrip any claim made today of savings for taxpayers.
Their plan, outlined in POLITICO, is to create a “private-public partnership” that acts as an insurance pool against future catastrophic events at “little” cost to taxpayers. Of course, there is no such thing as “little” cost in Washington. The result would actually be another centralized bureaucracy incapable of serving devastated areas efficiently or effectively.
Witt and Loy disingenuously claim that “Washington has been involved in rebuilding communities after catastrophes strike for more than 200 years.” Yes, there are very limited circumstances, where the federal government has appropriately involved itself in helping to rebuild communities after a major catastrophic event.
But, involving the federal government in every major or potential weather event, regardless of actual national impact, is bad policy, and does a disservice to the affected communities who would benefit from localized command over resources, aid and redevelopment.
Witt and Loy’s idea produces results like spending $50 million for a cloudy day in Houston because FEMA “leaned forward” with Hurricane Dean, which never came close to touching American soil. It also results in the bankrupt National Flood Insurance Program that repeatedly gets flood plains wrong and encourages people to rebuild in known flood zones.
As The Heritage Foundation has extensively noted, instead of creating another federal program that results in a majority of taxpayers subsidizing other Americans for the well-known risks of living in certain locations (earthquake zones, hurricane zones, tornado zones, and flood plains), Congress should scale back FEMA’s involvement and get it back to being a national catastrophic response agency. That’s what it was until Witt became the FEMA Administrator in 1993.
The reality is that the federal government played no role in most natural disasters in America from 1787 to 1992. Beginning in 1993, when FEMA first was run by a politician from the states, the federalization of natural disasters began.
In the short span of 16 years, the yearly average of FEMA declarations tripled—from 43 under President George H. W. Bush to 89 under President Bill Clinton to 130 under President George W. Bush. In less than two and a half years, President Barack Obama has issued 343 declarations without the occurrence of one major hurricane landfall or large-scale earthquake, which puts his yearly average at 137 declarations per year.
In the first five months of 2011, President Obama has issued 127 declarations, which puts him on a breathtaking pace of .81 declarations per day for a year-end estimate of 295 declarations—the most by far in FEMA history. The current record was set by Witt in 1996 when FEMA issued 157 declarations during President Clinton’s reelection campaign. As Witt famously noted, disasters are “inherently political events.”
President Obama already owns the single-year record for Major Disaster Declarations, with 81 in 2010. Again, that record was set without a single hurricane striking the United States and no earthquakes above 7.0 on the Richter Scale.
Instead of another federal program, Congress should establish clear requirements that limit the types of situations in which declarations can be issued—eliminating some types of disasters entirely from FEMA’s portfolio.
One way to accomplish this is to align declarations with the various scales used for disasters (e.g., the Saffir–Simpson Scale, the Richter Scale, and the Fujita Scale).
Another way to accomplish this is to raise the minimum dollar threshold for requesting disaster declarations. Doubling the minimum per capita with a minimum damage threshold of $5 million (and a maximum threshold of $50 million) would significantly reduce the number of events that would warrant a federal disaster declaration.
Congress also should reduce the cost-share provision for all FEMA declarations to no more than 25 percent of the costs. This will help to ensure that at least three-fourths of the costs of a disaster are borne by the taxpayers living where the disaster took place. For catastrophes with a nationwide impact, such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, a relief provision could provide a higher federal cost-share where the total costs of the disaster exceeds a certain threshold amount.
Natural disasters that take lives, homes and causes economic damage are heartbreaking. But the federal government must be better at prioritizing when, how and if it needs to be involved. Most of the time, the answer is they should not.
America is broke. The last thing the federal government needs is another program that will lead to the same outcome as past federal programs: more spending, more waste, and less federalism.