Lessons from Hurricane Irene
Without question, Hurricane Irene struck a major blow to the United States' East Coast over the weekend. At least 24 people have died, hundreds of thousands remain without power across the mid-Atlantic, and the estimates of direct costs of damage are in the range of billions of dollars. Our thoughts are with those who have suffered at the hands of the storm and who are beginning the process of rebuilding.
As the effects of the storm continue with "epic" flooding being reported in Vermont, pundits and politicians alike are already calculating its implications on government policy, with some calling for more funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is currently suspending payments for some of its recovery efforts in order to pay for the weekend's damage. There are, without a doubt, many lessons to be learned from the hurricane and how governments—local, state, and federal—should prepare for and respond to disaster. However, Hurricane Irene should not be used as an excuse to expand FEMA's role in responding to natural disasters.
Over the last several days, governors and mayors from North Carolina to New York have appeared on television and radio communicating with their constituents, warning them to take precautions in preparation for the worst. Fortunately, as bad as Hurricane Irene was, the absolute worst did not come, and all indications are that state and local governments took careful steps to ensure that their citizens were prepared.
All told, seven states declared states of emergency. In New York City, where the hurricane appeared to be taking dead aim, Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered an evacuation of more than 370,000 residents from the areas most prone to flooding. Meanwhile, Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered the city's mass-transit system to be shut down. And in New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie, too, ordered mass evacuations of a million people from the state's beaches and shoreline. All of those leaders acted in their constituents' best interests and did the job that local governments are supposed to do.
There are times, of course, when the federal government steps in to lend support--as in the case of major disasters that are of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and the affected local governments. But in recent history, the United States has over-federalized disaster response in a way that threatens the resiliency of the nation’s communities, according to a new report from The Heritage Foundation:
In the course 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 his two and a half years in office, President Obama has issued 360 declarations without the occurrence of one hurricane or large-scale earthquake. In the first six months of 2011, President Obama issued 144 declarations, which puts him on pace for 288 declarations for the year—by far the most in FEMA history. The current single-year record is President Clinton’s 157 declarations in 1996.
The authors write that the federalization of routine disasters requires FEMA to become involved with a new disaster somewhere in the United States every 2.5 days. And that's becoming a serious problem, because FEMA is perpetually in a response mode, leaving little time and few resources for catastrophic preparedness. Likewise, states have learned to beg Washington for help whenever a natural disaster strikes in the hope of receiving a FEMA declaration and the accompanying money. In short, states are becoming more dependent on the federal government, and FEMA is spreading itself too thin by responding to too many smaller incidents, thereby leaving it less prepared to handle the major disasters.
In the case of Hurricane Irene, Heritage's Matt Mayer writes that, "like Hurricane Dean a couple of years ago—when FEMA spent $50 million for a cloudy day in Houston—FEMA likely spent tens of millions preparing for Irene and will drop a lot more on declarations issued to states because of Irene." And this leaves Washington with a choice: continue devoting more funds to FEMA's ever-expanding role or scale back the agency, reserving federal funds for truly catastrophic events and other federal priorities.
This past weekend, America was reminded that its state and local governments have the capabilities to prepare for and respond to natural disasters. Though FEMA certainly has a role to play when catastrophe strikes, the federal government is not a replacement for local response and crisis management.