Analysis: The case for and against FEMA

Vera H-C Chan
Yahoo! News
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Disasters should never get political, but when taxpayer money is involved, even a much-needed leg up can set off heated budgetary discussions.

Economists have already been tallying Hurricane Sandy's damages to about $50 billion and up, and few would argue that the role of the Federal Emergency Management Agency is appropriate in this case.

The larger debate revolves less around whether FEMA should exist, and more around how involved it should be in state efforts. Mitt Romney's debate comments about disaster relief focused on empowering the states: "Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that's even better."

Advocates for state autonomy argue that the federal government's very willingness to grant funds can make states dependent.

FEMA/federal government should be reserved for truly catastrophic events like Sandy, Katrina, Northridge, 9/11, etc. FEMA/federal government should not be involved in routine disasters that states/locals have dealt with throughout most of American history. Otherwise, states like Ohio and its taxpayers subsidize tornadoes in Oklahoma or fires in Colorado or floods in Iowa. ( Oct. 30, 2012, the Foundry)

Here's a look at some fundamental issues—and questions—about how people should help one another in times of need.

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Do people fail to take personal responsibility? This issue perhaps goes to the heart of the rancor that accompanies the debate between federal or local: What is the responsibility people have to one another, and themselves, in a society?

In advance of Hurricane Sandy, a good number of people stocked up on generators and other emergency supplies. Disasters, however, aren't tidy: A generator may save a household when the power goes out, but those precautions fail in the face of hurricane-force winds that fuel flames or floods that swamp homes.

Buying a beachfront home in a flood-prone area could be construed as irresponsible, given that homeowners knew insurance companies wouldn't cover them. Yet Hurricane Sandy had been dubbed a "Frankenstorm" precisely because it involved a rare "collision of a tropical storm moving west instead of east at the same time a winter storm is moving in from the Midwest during a full moon."

Were Louisiana homeowners as culpable, however, when breached levees accounted for flood damage, often excluded by their home insurance? Also, a 2008 congressional study noted, "Insurance analysts observed that a large percentage of those eligible to buy federally subsidized flood insurance do not."

But should the federal government be offering this subsidy? Then what to do in cases like Mississippi, when State Farm stopped selling new policies in 2007? Does responsibility extend to developers, and local governments that grant permission to build? And does the responsibility circle back to FEMA, which hadn't updated old flood-risk maps that some home builders may have relied upon?

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The high cost of climate change. Federal aid advocates say personal and state responsibility is just part of the picture. They point to climate change as one factor driving costs—and the need—for federal intervention. "One sees climate change as an urgent problem that threatens our planet; one does not. I want our president to place scientific evidence and risk management above electoral politics," wrote New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in an endorsement for President Barack Obama.

The Heritage Foundation counted the 2011 record number of FEMA declarations as an example of government's out-of-control spending. That year, however, also broke records in weather-related catastrophes.

By November, there were a record-breaking 14 weather disasters that cost over a billion dollars each in damage. This was already five more than the previous record, held by 2008. The most expensive disaster this year was the super tornado outbreak of late April, racking up $9 billion in damages and claiming 321 lives—the deadliest tornado outbreak in recorded U.S. history (figures from the Weather Underground and NOAA). ( 2011, Yahoo! Year in Review Extreme Weather)

Our continent has a double whammy: It lies near the Gulf of Mexico's warm waters, where hurricanes form, and no natural barrier such as a mountain range blocks the collision of hot and cold air. People in the billion-dollar insurance business are adding "human-made climate change" in the mounting bills that weather catastrophes cost North America—about $1,060 billion from 1980 to 2011.

Nowhere in the world is the rising number of natural catastrophes more evident than in North America. The study shows a nearly quintupled number of weather-related loss events in North America for the past three decades, compared with an increase factor of 4 in Asia, 2.5 in Africa, 2 in Europe and 1.5 in South America. ... Up to now, however, the increasing losses caused by weather-related natural catastrophes have been primarily driven by socioeconomic factors, such as population growth, urban sprawl and increasing wealth. ( Oct. 17, 2012, Munich RE press release, "Severe Weather in North America")

So while denser population and urbanization in hazard-prone areas remain factors, worsening weather have made so-called routine disasters crippling in the United States.

Why so many needy states? The disaster relief law dictates that "All requests for a declaration by the president that a major disaster exists shall be made by the governor of the affected state."

Climate change argument aside, the jump in declarations has engendered accusations that the president is currying political favor with federal aid. It could also be yet another case of a sluggish bureaucracy which needs to improve its arithmetic. One former Bush administration official, Matt Mayer, points to possibly outmoded calculations that determine a state's aid eligibility.

[F]rom a regulatory standpoint, each state has a dollar figure based on population and total damage. And if you hit this number, then that makes you qualified to get the major disaster declaration and the costs shift and everything gets triggered. That number has not been adjusted in over two decades. I've written about this, and so has the Office of the Inspector General, who has said, "Hey, this is kind of crazy!" A huge number of declarations that were granted, if we just adjusted that dollar figure for inflation, would never have met the threshold. ( Oct. 31, the Atlantic)

This, the former Department of Homeland Security official points out, would force states to adjust budgets: "Because if they don't, believe you me, Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry will be held accountable by their voters if they fail to adequately respond to what is a state-based disaster and not a federal disaster."

Are states getting their "fair share"? Below, states ranked not by number of declarations, but by FEMA dollars granted from Jan. 1, 2011, to Nov. 1, 2012. (The amounts include both individual assistance to state residents, as well as public funds for larger projects. You can dig for more info on FEMA's Disaster Declarations page. Any errors are that of the writer -- please alert us in comments below.)

FEMA aid by state 2011-2012 totals
New York $1,282,028,170.62
Iowa $993,229,483.76
New Jersey $762,940,373.05
North Dakota $692,225,425.05
Pennsylvania $592,094,241.70
Alabama $514,545,394.84
Missouri $483,539,633.54
Louisiana $461,690,457.28
Vermont $350,650,160.23
Massachusetts $346,045,680.12
North Carolina $296,653,137.30
Connecticut $274,248,356.04
Tennessee $235,794,093.54
Nebraska $177,106,652.23
Puerto Rico $170,633,942.40
Virginia $169,447,068.98
Illinois $155,796,545.45
California $154,094,763.36
Mississippi $150,159,446.40
Arkansas $148,558,372.94
Kentucky $130,681,698.19
Minnesota $111,402,846.02
Texas $109,208,425.20
South Dakota $103,915,470.62
Montana $86,402,731.08
Ohio $70,854,354.66
Florida $67,708,126.44
Oklahoma $65,834,609.28
Maryland $64,120,442.44
Washington $62,760,772.93
Georgia $51,444,085.54
West Virginia $48,254,802.28
Oregon $44,758,420.52
New Mexico $41,706,930.26
Utah $41,173,114.74
New Hampshire $39,134,501.70
Indiana $32,234,703.34
Kansas $26,938,012.09
Wisconsin $21,984,409.45
District of Columbia (D.C.) $21,136,413.72
Hawaii $20,902,966.60
Rhode Island $16,646,748.84
Wyoming $10,368,261.84
Alaska $7,422,711.26
Maine $7,241,709.48
Colorado $7,117,077.26
Idaho $6,144,768.80
Delaware $4,493,694.96
GRAND TOTAL $10,748,974,030.50