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The FEMA Disaster
Another emergency spending bill narrowly avoided the shutdown of the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Republicans and Democrats settled on an additional $3.65 billion in funding. But stress over FEMA funding is not centralized in Washington D.C. Frozen funding, mismanaged distributions, and states' fiscal uncertainty relating to disaster relief is increasing frustration over the failed disaster management practices of FEMA-the need for reform is clear.
In 2011, tornados, hurricanes, flooding and wildfires led to major disaster declarations and/or state of emergency declarations in forty-eight of the fifty states... so far. FEMA blew through $7,462450,000 in gross discretionary funds for 2011 and requested additional funds, yet managed to allocate money for building updates. According to FEMA's 2011 budget, $23.3 million of funding is dedicated to a facility improvement plan to make building acquisitions and repairs. An additional $5.9 million of the budget is allocated to the data center development fund. These improvements occur while state and local programs took a $164.6 million cut and the emergency food and shelter program took a $100 million cut. While FEMA spends millions on capital improvements, individuals and states fight for months, even years, to get funding.
Troupsburg, NY, citizens continue to wait over five months for aid after a strong April storm left 3.5 inches of rain, causing an estimated $205,000 worth of damage. In the meantime, the town stretched their own budget to help cover immediate costs, but cannot cover funding guaranteed by FEMA in full. More devastating spring flooding occurred in South Dakota-Moody County is one of many counties still waiting on FEMA funding to repair damaged roads. Several townships in the county either borrowed money or made temporary repairs to crucial harvesting roads while waiting for funding.
It has been a year and a half since the historic flooding in Cranston, Rhode Island, and the citizens there are still waiting for grant money that was supposed to fund a voluntary buyout program of flood-prone properties. For now, the money is frozen, leaving many homeowners hoping to move out of the floodplain frustrated and desperate. In a second application for funding following additional Hurricane Irene flooding, a citizen wrote, "Our situation cannot be lost or forgotten-it takes everyone involved to make the difference we so deserve."
In some cases, the nature of the disaster and the area affected seems to dictate when and if certain areas will see funding. Following the Joplin, Missouri tornado in May 2011 that killed 160 people and damaged 7,500 homes, the federal government promised full funding to restore the area. However, in late August, FEMA froze some aid to the area in order to redirect funds to the Washington D.C. and New York areas following Hurricane Irene.
The list is seemingly endless. In Ohio, Athens County is waiting for $213,184 and Switzerland Township waits for $1,407. Brevard County, Florida is waiting for $2,079 and Louisville, Kentucky waits for a mere $995. It is widely recognized that FEMA's work in the wake of the country's worst natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina, was a "spectacular failure."
When states depend on funding from the federal government, and FEMA doesn't follow through timely, or at all in some cases, it puts states in a precarious financial position. If states took the reigns and had control over funding themselves, it would lessen the dependency on a failing, inefficient system.
Decentralizing FEMA is a credible option. Congress could redistribute FEMA appropriations directly to the states. States have a geographical advantage to target the areas that require immediate assistance. Reducing uncertainty regarding the amount of federal relief available, the reliability of relief, and the timeline of receipt, will better allow states to budget for disasters, even save unused funds for future use. Additionally, redistribution will decrease the need for states and cities to seek out emergency loans to cover costs as well as spend money on temporary fixes.
States can also better coordinate with private enterprises, such as the American Red Cross, to assist when disaster strikes. Within one week of Hurricane Katrina, the ARC placed thousands of volunteers in disaster areas, opening up 275 shelters in nine states and provided nearly 500,000 hot meals to disaster victims daily. The American Red Cross is also uniquely situated to coordinate volunteers and private donations from charities, churches and private businesses.
By localizing disaster relief, states know what resources are available and can direct relief efforts quickly and in sufficient levels for crucial assistance and recovery. The right people and organizations can better coordinate efforts to collect and distribute private donations and fund the highest priority necessities first.