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Disaster Politics

Part Two: Striking a Balance

In her FY 2012 Homeland Security budget overview (http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2011/03/checkbook-homeland-security-highlights-from-the-fy-2012-budget-request), Jena Baker McNeill of the Heritage Foundation charges that the nation’s disaster response processes are both overfederalized and undercapitalized: As administrations have become increasingly willing to declare disasters, burdening the federal government with 75 to 100 percent of response costs, FEMA’s disaster response accounts have suffered a repeating cycle of large supplemental funding requests.

McNeill’s answer is not to increase funding, but to reduce the federal government’s role in disaster response and place more authority in the hands of local and state governments, who are able to respond more quickly: “For too long,” she wrote, “FEMA has federalized disaster response to the point that every routine disaster is met with an onslaught of federal funds . . . Supplanting state and local funding with federal funding encourages state and local governments to not prepare, knowing that the federal government will bail them out.”

While Rick Nelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies agrees that state governments and local communities have much to learn about disaster response and recovery, he disagrees with the idea that they have fallen victim to learned helplessness in the face of disasters – none of which community members would be likely to classify as “routine.”

“There is some incentive to get those disasters declared,” he said. “That doesn’t mean all cities have done that. For example, in South Dakota, a couple of years ago, they had flooding and they took care of it all themselves at the community level. They protected themselves, and they didn’t get any federal money.” Nelson also believes, however, that “until there is a fundamental shift in the American public about preparation for disasters, they’re going to continue to be a serious issue.”

To Nelson, the issue isn’t necessarily either/or, with state and local governments taking on either more or less responsibility for disaster response – it’s whether all parties involved, public and private, can plan ahead to work more seamlessly as a unit. This is happening in New Orleans, he pointed out, where everyone, including FEMA, is determined to avoid the problems that plagued the 2005 Hurricane Katrina response and recovery: “There is an operations center down in Baton Rouge,” said Nelson, “staffed by the governor’s office and Homeland Security. It’s a manned, twenty-four hour-a-day center. They’ve set up a business emergency operation center where businesses have a seat at the table and are able to communicate with government officials so they can provide supplies and help with recovery . . . If you look at how Louisiana handled the most recent flooding issue, they actually did a fairly decent job. In fact, we aren’t even reading about it anymore.”

In the discussion about the federal government’s role, Nelson also pointed out, it’s important to distinguish between response and recovery. “We’re actually pretty good at response,” he said. “The problem with Katrina was the recovery. What do you do with all of the trailers? How do you get people back to work? There are hundreds of thousands of people who have not returned to New Orleans. So they’re working to create a sense of resilience. ‘Hey, if we have a disaster, this is how we’re going to recover: We’re going to get the businesses up and going. Instead of sending in MREs, we’re going to have community businesses provide meals that will be half the cost of an MRE. We’ll put people back to work and keep the community up and running.’ It’s those types of initiatives that we’re learning the hard way, and that we have to really take on.”

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...