Very good points on FEMA

by on November 2, 2012 at 3:57 am in Current Affairs | Permalink

From Jordan Weissmann:

We’ve nationalized so many of the events over the last few decades that the federal government is involved in virtually every disaster that happens. And that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. It stresses FEMA unnecessarily. And it allows states to shift costs from themselves to other states, while defunding their own emergency management because Uncle Sam is going to pay. That’s not good for anyone.

When FEMA’s operational tempo is 100-plus disasters a year, it’s always having to do stuff. There’s not enough time to truly prepare for a catastrophic event. Time is a finite quantity. And when you’re spending time and money on 100-plus declarations, or over 200 last year, that taxes the system. It takes away time you could be spending getting ready for the big stuff.

Nobody is taking the position, that I know of, saying get rid of FEMA, the federal government should have no role responding to disasters. The position is, no no, we need to save FEMA and the Federal Government for the big stuff: Sandy, Katrina, Northridge. But states should be charged to take care of the other, more routine stuff that happens every year. There are always going to be Tornadoes in Oklahoma and Arkansas. There are always going to be floods in northwest Ohio and Iowa. There are always to be snowstorms in the Northeast. There are always going to be rain storms, fires in Colorado. They happen every year. There’s no surprise here. And they don’t have national or regional implications, economically or otherwise. If they do, that’s a different question.

Read the whole thing.

prior_approval November 2, 2012 at 4:51 am

‘And that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.’
Because national emergencies don’t require a national response?

‘There’s not enough time to truly prepare for a catastrophic event.’
Strange – the military handles all sorts of ‘catastrophic events’ during a war, and yet still finds the time and resources to train young recruits, develop new tactics and strategies, plan for future events, and otherwise handle both the immediate, short, medium, and long term. I wonder what their secret is?

‘There are always going to be Tornadoes in Oklahoma and Arkansas’
And this is a reason to do away with something like weather satellites? (see the Republican consistent attempts to cut NOAA funding)

‘There are always going to be floods in northwest Ohio and Iowa.’
So who needs the Corps of Engineers?

Really, the list is just silly – a properly functioning government is perfectly able to handle emergency responses to events which overwhelm local or even state governments – such as a major ice storm which destroys electrical infrastructure throughout an entire region – while planning how to handle other events.

The really bizarre thing? This article seems to argue that having well trained people and practiced methods in place to deal with the next disaster is a problem that needs to be dealt with.

Katrina already showed what a heckuva of a job that sort of attitude results in.

dearieme November 2, 2012 at 6:35 am

“a properly functioning government is perfectly able …”: but he was discussing the Federal government.

Andrew' November 2, 2012 at 7:03 am

“Because national emergencies don’t require a national response?”

People keep changing words so they get the results they want. This wasn’t a national emergency. I’m several hours drive from there and we felt nothing.

When we were hit with a hurricane, I personally saw zero evidence of a “national” response.

Anyway, this is simply how this always happens. 50% +1 agree that the gov should do something, then the government gets out of hand. And if you ask them to stop getting out of hand you are met with cries of “I can’t believe you think they should do nothing!” Well, in a lot of cases they should do nothing. Other peoples’ hysteria has never seemed to be my problem.

It’s very similar to the medical debacle. If you agree to subsidize emergency rooms, you can bet you’ll be forking over for sex changes.

prior_approval November 2, 2012 at 7:12 am

‘This wasn’t a national emergency’

A quote from Jonathan – ‘One of the main issues why so many of us are without power is because 10 states were without power and believe it or not were…”competing” for power crews.

So you are saying that if 25% of the country is impacted it does my require a national response? When you live in a national disaster area lets hear you call for the market response. I’m living through state competition currently. It’s not so lovely’

Where is your cut-off for national disaster? I live just 10 hours away (by airplane) and we didn’t even feel a breeze here.

RPLong November 2, 2012 at 9:14 am

Oh, no you don’t. Where is YOUR cut-off?

Advocates of government intervention are always asking for others to draw the line in the Paradox of the Heap, but quite conveniently never draw the line themselves.

So do you have the courage to state your opinion firmly? It is a fact that the federal government cannot solve every problem. It has limited resources. So where do YOU draw the line? Show your work.

prior_approval November 2, 2012 at 2:11 pm

I don’t have a cut-off, and quoted someone else suggesting 25% of the U.S. affected would count. But the largest storm ever record on the Eastern Seaboard would certainly seem to fit, unlike some people who insist because where they live it wasn’t that bad. Sandy wasn’t a problem where I lived either.

But then, no catastrophe that completely misses me is ever a catastrophe – at least that seems to be the attitude for some commenters here.

Barry November 2, 2012 at 3:50 pm

“People keep changing words so they get the results they want. This wasn’t a national emergency. I’m several hours drive from there and we felt nothing.”

It was regional, and far beyond the capacity of the states involved.

Barry

prior_approval November 2, 2012 at 7:10 am

Well, yes. And the federal government that was seemingly overwhelmed by Katrina has had a new person in charge for the last four years, one who has made a priority of increasing its ability to handle natural disasters.

The results are on public display, to compare and contrast.

Though at least the world is no longer looking at an American disaster response comparable to that of a 3rd country (though they are still incredulous about America’s comprehensive above ground system of electrical wiring for most neighborhoods). Unlike the heckuva job which occurred under an administration that paid no more heed to predictions of natural disasters than it did of planned terrorist attacks.

Ted Craig November 2, 2012 at 8:52 am
NormD November 4, 2012 at 9:58 am

“The results are on public display, to compare and contrast.”

And this had nothing to do with reporting by a media that hated Bush and loves Obama.

I listened to an Obama speech on Sandy where he said something to the effect “I told FEMA not to tell me what things can’t be don’t, tell me how you are going to get things done”.

Lame beyond words…

Pshrnk November 2, 2012 at 12:43 pm

Seems more like they may have an argument to expand FEMA so we have a corps of well trained emergency responders who can respond to the tornados in Oklahoma during tornado season and to other disasters when it is not tornado season. More efficient than have Oklahoma state emergency responders busy in tornado season and twiddling their thumbs at other times. Think risk pooling and insurance….the larger the number involved the better you can predict resource needs.

Cliff November 2, 2012 at 3:52 pm

Did you read the post? “we need to save FEMA and the Federal Government for the big stuff: Sandy…” In other words, YES, Sandy is a national emergency and FEMA should be there. The rest of your post is irrelevant gibberish.

Jonathan November 2, 2012 at 5:21 am

A national response might be a terrible idea. But someone who is living in a disaster area currently (along with multiple members of my family). I find this post quite insensitive. Because you basically have not had to constantly listen to the radio on this event (understandably so). One of the main issues why so many of us are without power is because 10 states were without power and believe it or not were…”competing” for power crews.

So you are saying that if 25% of the country is impacted it does my require a national response? When you live in a national disaster area lets hear you call for the market response. I’m living through state competition currently. It’s not so lovely

rpl November 2, 2012 at 6:10 am

So you are saying that if 25% of the country is impacted it does my require a national response?

It’s funny how people will read an article and see what they want to see. Here’s a passage from the article (emphasis mine):

Nobody is taking the position, that I know of, saying get rid of FEMA, the federal government should have no role responding to disasters. The position is, no no, we need to save FEMA and the Federal Government for the big stuff: Sandy, Katrina, Northridge.

So, no, he’s not saying that if 25% of the country is impacted it doesn’t require a national response. He’s saying that most of the disasters that FEMA handles don’t rise anywhere close to that level. Most of them don’t even make the news. FEMA handled over 200 disasters last year. Who here can name even 10 of them? I certainly can’t.

Finally, to your point about states competing for disaster relief, what makes you think that won’t happen if disaster relief is federalized? I mean, the competition you describe happening today is happening under a federal response. The disasters that Weissmann is talking about leaving to the states are precisely the ones for which the impact is localized to a single state, so that there is nobody to compete with.

Still, arguing over the role of the federal government in disaster relief seems like a fool’s errand. When it comes to this sort of thing, people are simply not prepared to think about it in any but emotional terms. They want to be reassured that everything is going to be ok, and they want that reassurance to come from the guy they see on the TV news every day, not from a governor whom they wouldn’t recognize if they passed him on the street. In most people’s minds state and local government is at best a farm system for the “real” government in Washington, and nobody wants their disaster to be handled by the B-team. Until people change their attitudes toward state and local government (and I don’t see that happening any time soon), we’re going to see more disasters federalized, not fewer.

Jonathan November 2, 2012 at 8:29 am

Yeah I can agree with a lot of what you are saying in terms of FEMA, Sandy seems like a poor example. Especially for those of us who are impacted.

Cliff November 2, 2012 at 3:54 pm

Sandy wasn’t used as an example!

dearieme November 2, 2012 at 6:37 am

“I find this post quite insensitive.” Oh grow up.

prior_approval November 2, 2012 at 7:20 am

They are still searching for and finding the dead in towns along the coast (90 is the last number reported here), and the death toll is quite likely to continue to rise for days. Some people seem to have no ability to understand what happened along major stretches of the Eastern Seaboard – often because it is difficult to reach the places where houses were washed out to sea, and because in their neighborhood hundreds of miles away, nothing much happened, proving that Sandy was not a big problem.

NYC didn’t suffer the worst of Sandy – it just remains in the spotlight, as it so often does.

Jonathan November 2, 2012 at 8:27 am

Tell that to my aunt with a 40 ton tree in her kitchen. Or the hundred thousand businesses damaged just locally.

prior_approval November 3, 2012 at 8:25 am

I will try to explain what I meant about the spotlight, using an example of a storm where I live now.

It was a completely unpredicted and unexpected hurricane (though non-tropical cyclone is probably more accurate in today’s terms). It happened on the second day of Christmas, where people traditionally visit families. I had been following the weather on the news, with accounts of high wind speeds – before the reporting from the area the winds reached went dark. And the storm could be tracked through the extinguishing of any information from the path it travelled.

The worst hit places in such a storm are the silent ones, though it is easy to forget that, as silence normally means everything is OK. But I will admit, I made the non-New York City inhabitant mistake of saying ‘NYC’ when I meant ‘Manhattan’ – Staten Island, which fits well into the idea of a place without much information flowing from it, seems to have been hit very, very hard.

Hoover November 2, 2012 at 6:01 am

FEMA got big and took over local functions because that’s what organisations do.

I’ve watched the European Union do the same over the past few decades.

prior_approval November 2, 2012 at 7:21 am

Just following in your footsteps, Hoover – see the link about your feeding the starving in wikipedia.

Doug November 2, 2012 at 6:04 am

“Nobody is taking the position, that I know of, saying get rid of FEMA, the federal government should have no role responding to disasters.”

Umm, yeah I take that position. Why should the federal taxpayer have to pay to rebuild natural disaster affected areas? Isn’t that the whole point of private insurance. Having the federal government bail out those affected by natural disasters creates moral hazard.

What is the compelling market failure that justifies this economic intervention? We have robust private insurance markets for natural disasters. I have yet to see any economists defend FEMA from the standpoint of basic economic theory. Even from the standpoint of giving economic resources to those affected by the hurricane makes no sense. Many of the homeowners in wealthy New Jersey suburbs will receive federal bailouts funded by poorer taxpayers in Mississippi despite being wealthier even with uninsured damage of their home.

Besides sending in the military to maintain law and order there’s no reason for the federal government to intervene or re-distribute. If you want to re-distribute to those affected you should just do it through non disaster specific means tested programs.

prior_approval November 2, 2012 at 6:36 am

‘Umm, yeah I take that position. Why should the federal taxpayer have to pay to rebuild natural disaster affected areas? Isn’t that the whole point of private insurance.’

No.

And I recommend you read up on the concept of ‘act of god,’ how it relates to private insurance coverage, and why disaster aid is properly a role of government.

rz0 November 2, 2012 at 6:40 am

Um, feds don’t pay for rebuilding. They make loans.

prior_approval November 2, 2012 at 6:46 am

Depends – there is direct, generally emergency aid, and there are loans. And to the extent that the damaged infrastructure is already government owned, the rebuilding is then properly the role of government (there is no private insurance available for government facilities after all). For example, FAA centers which may have suffered damage along the Eastern Seaboard, or various waterways.

Then there is the coordination and delivery of federal supplies and resources – such as providing military electrical generation systems and personnel. (Which is happening right now, from California to New York, using military transports, according to one report I read.)

Jan November 2, 2012 at 7:25 am

RE Mississipp, haha. Please see MS share of federal tax receipts versus federal spending.

Also, please see private market flood insurance policy availability and rates for lower Manhattan and Atlantic City.

KevinH November 2, 2012 at 9:21 am

Knee-jerk libertarianism? Private insurance is available, but they will only provide money in the long term. When you are out of power, fuel and food, you need large teams of trained professionals, helicopters, and temporary housing. Issuance companies aren’t in that business, and if they were there’d be a huge efficiency issue as each insurance company would need to have overlapping resources and mandates (for example, during a flood how easy is it to decide where property lines are, or even what a street address is to know if you are helping out your paying customers or free riders). All in all, disasters are a classic example of when centralized government is more effective than a free market.

Jonathan November 2, 2012 at 8:34 am

No insurance doesn’t cover a lot of economic losses. So the five businesses men who I know who are not in the gasoline industry are getting hammered. FEMA actually uses taxpayer money to reimburse them to the average amount they would have made had the hurricane not happened. Again 100,00 businesses on Long Island alone have been destroyed or injured. Insurance does NOT take into account economic profit. So consider that (I still would understand your anger of helping roughly businesses in 25% of the country because it couldn’t possibly impact the economic situation in your area).

MD November 2, 2012 at 6:14 pm

An insurance company does not clear debris from roads or pump water from subways. An insurance company may or may not reimburse you for clearing debris from roads or pumping water from subways, depending upon the language of the policy and what the parties believe that can get by fighting over language of the policy.

byomtov November 2, 2012 at 9:58 pm

I have yet to see any economists defend FEMA from the standpoint of basic economic theory.

Well, maybe chapter one of that book you read is not the whole story. And maybe basic economic theory doesn’t describe the universe quite as accurately as you seem to imagine.

Grow up.

prior_approval November 2, 2012 at 6:06 am

Driving home, it finally hit what makes this line such a slick piece of sleight of hand -

‘We’ve nationalized so many of the events over the last few decades that the federal government is involved in virtually every disaster that happens.’

No, we have not ‘nationalized’ disasters. We may have ‘federalized’ them, but no one at any level of government is ‘nationalizing’ any catastrophe. And this misuse of a term with a commonly accepted meaning is quite telling, as it is meant to already set a tone, since Americans are generally opposed to ‘nationalization’ of any private property.

But Americans are not opposed to the federal government doing its job, and having it federalize a natural disaster. Far from it, actually – and Obama’s strengthening of the federal government’s ability to handle a major catastrophe is one of the reasons he was elected, after Americans were able to see the result of the previous bunch of bumbling, heckuva job clowns.

Cliff November 2, 2012 at 3:59 pm

Everything’s a conspiracy to you. Nationalism is a completely appropriate term. Although I’m sure in GERMANY they would never use such a term, instead they would use the far superior term Kurzarbeitsocializtewurkgeschaft, right?

byomtov November 2, 2012 at 9:55 pm

WTF are you talking about?

Do you even know?

W.E. Heasley November 2, 2012 at 6:18 am

‘….it allows states to shift costs from themselves to other states, while defunding their own emergency management because Uncle Sam is going to pay.’

‘ [James Lee Witt] “Disasters are inherently political events.” And I think that created the opportunity to start using FEMA as an entity that could get involved in things in a way that would have political outcomes.’

Hoover started “federal relief” in 1932 followed by the FDR administration’s use of “relief” as political patronage. Prior to 1932, to a vast degree, charity [relief] in the U.S. was either state funded or private funded. Hence states had to tax their own citizens regarding that state’s ability to provide charity aka “relief”.

Hoover laid the frame work and FDR purposely supplanted the old system of state and private charity [relief] with federal dollars as a political constituency building exercise. The result was state politicos need not raise taxes on their particular state citizens to build, maintain or replenish state relief funds/mechanism, rather, they could avoid tax increases to their voting base by lobbing for federal “relief” through the promise of political patronage.

See New Deal or Raw Deal, Folsom, pages 76 – 84

Zach November 2, 2012 at 6:33 am

At least in the case of river flooding, other New Deal programs sort of necessitated an expanded role in Federal disaster relief if Federal judges, administrators, and the Army Corps were deciding which states suffered floodwaters for the sake of minimizing net losses. Ditto for agriculture relief during droughts. It’s naive to think disaster relief could have remained a state/private system when so many of the most expensive natural disasters are shaped by Federal land and water management policies… precedents for which predate the New Deal.

W.E. Heasley November 2, 2012 at 6:48 am

“It’s naive to think disaster relief could have remained a state/private system when so many of the most expensive natural disasters are shaped by Federal land and water management policies… precedents for which predate the New Deal.”

Let us see. The term “naïve” as a debate point to deny legitimacy to a prior point. Then comes “…shaped by Federal land and water management policies… precedents for which predate the New Deal” which is a debate attempt to legitimize one central planning scheme with a prior central planning scheme.

Zach, maybe, just maybe the dreams of central planner, such as yourself, are in fact “naïve”.

Zach November 5, 2012 at 9:51 am

The Federal government owned much of the land and water in question before states existed. In many cases it’s a Federal issue by default; if states were negotiating water rights with each other (and, of course, they do in fact do this to an extent) for most states it would only be because the Federal government created states with water/land rights where none previously existed. Water management isn’t a case where independent states were doing fine on their own till the Federal government big-footed its way into the business of central planning. It’s a fundamentally interstate issue and one of the major domestic roles of the Federal government. Without interstate collaboration, northern states would hoard water till it rained too much and then open the flood gates. What’s the way around this without central planning? A Federal government that tells states they can’t dam rivers on their own is as activist as a Federal government that tells states where and how to dam rivers. States in a given watershed could make agreements amongst themselves, but this is just the Federal government in miniature.

prior_approval November 2, 2012 at 6:42 am

Interestingly, Hoover had extensive experience in disaster management long before being elected President -

‘When World War I began in August 1914, Hoover helped organize the return of 120,000 Americans from Europe. He led 500 volunteers in distributing food, clothing, steamship tickets and cash. “I did not realize it at the moment, but on August 3, 1914, my career was over forever. I was on the slippery road of public life.”[62] Hoover liked to say that the difference between dictatorship and democracy was simple: dictators organize from the top down, democracies from the bottom up.

When Belgium faced a food crisis after being invaded by Germany, Hoover undertook an unprecedented relief effort with the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB).[63] As chairman of the CRB, Hoover worked with the leader of the Belgian Comite National de Secours et Alimentation (CN), Emile Francqui, to feed the entire nation for the duration of the war. The CRB obtained and imported millions of tons of foodstuffs for the CN to distribute, and watched over the CN to make sure the German army didn’t appropriate the food. The CRB became a veritable independent republic of relief, with its own flag, navy, factories, mills, and railroads. Private donations and government grants (78%) supplied an $11-million-a-month budget.[64]

For the next two years, Hoover worked 14-hour days from London, administering the distribution of over two million tons of food to nine million war victims. In an early form of shuttle diplomacy, he crossed the North Sea forty times to meet with German authorities and persuade them to allow food shipments, becoming an international hero. The Belgian city of Leuven named a prominent square Hooverplein after him. At its peak, Hoover’s ARA fed 10.5 million people daily.]] Great Britain grew reluctant to support the CRB, preferring instead to emphasize Germany’s obligation to supply the relief; Winston Churchill, whom Hoover intensely disliked, led a military faction that considered the Belgian relief effort “a positive military disaster.” Churchill considered Hoover a stubborn “son of a bitch”. [65]

After the United States entered the war in April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Hoover to head the U.S. Food Administration, which was created under the Lever Food Control Act in 1917. This was a position he actively sought, though he later claimed it was thrust upon him. He was convinced from his Belgian work that centralization of authority was essential to any relief effort; he demanded, and got, great power albeit not as much as he sought.[66] Hoover believed “food will win the war”; and beginning on September 29, this slogan was introduced and put into frequent use.[67]

He carefully selected men to assist in the agency leadership – Alonzo Taylor (technical abilities), Robert Taft (political associations), Gifford Pinchot (agricultural influence) and Julius Barnes (business acumen).[68] Hoover established set days for people to avoid eating specified foods and save them for soldiers’ rations: meatless Mondays, wheatless Wednesdays, and “when in doubt, eat potatoes.” This program helped reduce consumption of foodstuffs needed overseas and avoided rationing at home. It was dubbed “Hooverizing” by government publicists, in spite of Hoover’s continual orders that publicity should not mention him by name. The agency employed a system of price controls and licensing requirements for suppliers to maximize production. Despite efforts to prevent it, some companies reaped great profits.[69]

After the war, as a member of the Supreme Economic Council and head of the American Relief Administration, Hoover organized shipments of food for millions of starving people in Central Europe. He used a newly formed Quaker organization, the American Friends Service Committee, to carry out much of the logistical work in Europe.

Hoover provided aid to the defeated German nation after the war, as well as relief to famine-stricken Bolshevik-controlled areas of Russia in 1921, despite the opposition of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and other Republicans. When asked if he was not thus helping Bolshevism, Hoover retorted, “Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!” At war’s end, the New York Times named Hoover one of the “Ten Most Important Living Americans”. In July 1922, Soviet author Maxim Gorky wrote to Hoover:

Your help will enter history as a unique, gigantic achievement, worthy of the greatest glory, which will long remain in the memory of millions of Russians whom you have saved from death.’

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herbert_Hoover#Humanitarian

Fascinating to read about great Republicans from our past – the ones that helped cement the reputation of the United States as a great and generous nation, able to support the weak and needy in war and famine, because it is the decent way to act as a human being.

Cliff November 2, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Oh my God, you mean Germany would not help?? I thought Germany was the paragon of humanity?

Zach November 2, 2012 at 6:25 am

I think the sum total of national natural disasters (and other things FEMA deals with) is a lot less noisy and more predictable than those in any one state. Further, the Federal government has much more flexibility in paying for disaster relief. You’d have a lot of deadweight in terms of money earmarked to emergency response to pay for worst-case scenarios that rarely happen and redundant emergency-response personnel (the Feds can move resources between states; obviously states with mutual interests could cooperate to the same effect, but that just argues for Federal emergency response anyway). In many ways its the same principle as health insurance. Even if everyone needs healthcare and healthcare costs are usually pretty predictable (more so than Kansas’ annual tornado-relief or most of the examples in this post), it’s still turned out to be beneficial to pool beneficiaries.

There are obviously some times when states might be best suited to deal with their own quais-unique problems; if FEMA had blanket authority over natural-disaster response, a smart FEMA administrator would defer to the states in these cases. This is reportedly been one of FEMA’s goals for reform during Obama’s first term.

walleye November 2, 2012 at 7:42 am

+1

I also found it curious that the opening claim was that FEMA dealing with 100+ disasters a year was too much; if your subclaim is that many of these disasters are too small or predictable for FEMA to deal with, then why the assumption that they suck up 100% of FEMA’s time and energy to the point that the agency can’t prepare for larger disasters?

Owen November 2, 2012 at 9:34 am

I agree with this, but we should remember that if states have little to no incentive to prepare for natural disasters, sinsce the costs of recovery are federalized, they will have little incentive to promote disaster readiness. Zoning policies, mandatory flood insurance, levee construction, etc… these are all decisions made at the local and state level that impact the cost of potential disasters. There’s a difference between greatly overstaffing the coast guard and fire department at all times to prepare for “predictable” disasters, and having sensible disaster-mitigation strategies. The happy medium is probably a somewhat higher threshold for FEMA intervention, but a FEMA that’s not drastically shrunk from what we see now.

Orange14 November 2, 2012 at 7:03 am

Many states are unwilling to tax their citizens to the necessary extent to get the resources to do this. Look at Louisiana which has an extremely low tax rate. Following Katrina the USG spent over $10B fixing up the flood control system in the greater New Orleans area. One might argue that this should be a Federal effort because New Orleans is an important port for barge traffic coming down the Mississippi River. However, much of the economic value of this port accrues to Louisiana in terms of jobs and other economic related activity. I’ve posted on this particular item before as I find it curious that Governor Jindal always speaks about ‘small’ government but I didn’t see him refusing this money from the USG.

I have a couple of very good friends who have been at FEMA for a lot of years and they have repeatedly told me that the goal is to get the States involved at all levels. There are ongoing training programs year around in every single one of the 50 states to provide assistance in setting up proactive measures. There is an awful lot that goes on behind the scenes that most of us are not aware of (one friend is on the road 1/4 of his working time helping to set up such programs). FEMA does not just step in when the disaster has struck.

Urso November 2, 2012 at 11:51 am

So much wrong here. The Mississippi river system drains over half the continental US. If flood control on that river isn’t a federal issue I don’t know what is.

Louisiana also has to deal with an incredible amount of pollution dumped in the river by our heartland cousins because, hey, not their problem. And saying that the economic value of the Mississippi accrues specifically to Louisiana is absurd. How much extra would those Midwest grain farmers have to pay if there was no river and they had to ship their grain to New York to export it? Trust me, they get plenty of economic surplus from the river. They get all the benefits and little of the cost because, hey, water and pollution flow downstream. Well guess who’s downstream? Think of the federal $ to flood control in LA as a way of forcing the rest of the country to internalize the costs which would otherwise “accrue” to Louisiana.

Bill Harshaw November 2, 2012 at 8:41 am

I can argue that if FEMA proves competent in handling the mid-sized disasters, it builds a reputation for bureaucratic competence and credibility on the Hill, which can lead to the resources to tackle long range planning, as well as the capability to do big disasters. Obviously there’s a middle ground here but it seems Weissmann is telling only one side.

KevinH November 2, 2012 at 9:13 am

I can kind of get behind the sentiment, except after a bit of thought 2 things keep bugging me.

1. By all reports FEMA has done a pretty good job with Sandy. It doesn’t look like their effectiveness is being degraded by the other 200 disasters they helped with in the last year.

2. The flip side of this coin would be to have an agency that does nothing 4 out of 5 years. Hurricane Katrina was 7 years ago. What should FEMA have been doing in those 7 years? It seems like it would be a huge waste to have trained experts and resources sitting on their hands in DC saying ‘well, we aren’t doing anything else right now, but we MIGHT be in another month, so lets do some more prep’.

prior_approval November 2, 2012 at 9:39 am

‘The flip side of this coin would be to have an agency that does nothing 4 out of 5 years.’

Might want to talk to the Defense Dept. about that, though one can be confident that another Republican administration is much more likely to ensure that our soldiers are being shot at far more often than is currently the case.

Also, are you familiar with how often the fire department is actually involved in fighting fires and otherwise dealing with emergencies – let’s just say that in a place like Fairfax, 20% of their time actually spent in doing such fire fighting would be a noticeable increase. (Well, if the fire station I lived next to in the past was any indication.)

ezra abrams November 2, 2012 at 9:24 am

No one is taking the position that FEMA should be abolished ?
Uh, wasn’t that the position, roughly, of Gov Romney after the tornados this spring ?
similar non reality:
1) those who say that President Obama is more egocentric cause he uses first person pronounds more, when simply reading the text of the debates shows that Mitt used “I” more (and as for things like “my administration”, what exactly was Obama supposed to say ?)

2) The persistent call in the primarys to abolish EPA. I work in a lab that orders dangerous chemicals, on a very small scale. Thank god that someone – in this case EPA – is making sure, albeit badly, that we have a national policy to ensure safe transport use and disposal of said chemicals.
I mean, you really want more Love Canals ?

enoriverbend November 2, 2012 at 2:24 pm

“wasn’t that the position, roughly, of Gov Romney after the tornados this spring ?”

No, it was not. You can find exact quotes if you look, “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. …” is hardly a call for the abolition of FEMA.

“you really want more Love Canals ?”
I do hope you realize that it was a government body, not a chemical corporation, that caused most of the problem at Love Canal. Hooker Chemical didn’t even want to sell the land to the Niagara Falls school district but was forced to by threat of condemnation/expropriation, and was very explicit — when forced to sell — about the pollution and the very real dangers of building there. It was the city of Niagara Falls (and related government entities) that took known chemically-polluted land and built schools, the expressway, and re-sold land to housing developers.

mw November 2, 2012 at 9:54 am

Couldn’t agree more–let’s have NY and CA stop giving massive amounts of tax money to all the republican states and save it for emergency disaster relief instead.

John Thacker November 2, 2012 at 10:17 am

If those rich states don’t want to send money to poorer states, perhaps they should stop voting for candidates and parties that believe in income redistribution on a federal scale, and only do so on a statewide level. It’s axiomatic, for example, that if only the top rates of the Bush tax rates are allowed to expire, then NY and CA will give even more tax money to the poorer states.

Granted there’s a case to be made about cost of living, but you will never get changes of government taxation based on cost of living passed.

MD November 2, 2012 at 6:22 pm

I’m ready for one better: Just cut the cord completely. If Arkansas and Mississippi want to fight over which can be the poorest and most poorly educated, they can do that just fine on their own. The only thing that holds me back is that it would probably harm college football, which is more important that bitching about FEMA.

Brian Donohue November 2, 2012 at 12:00 pm

This meme is way overdone. California only recently turned into a ‘net payer’ here. The big losers are northeast and upper midwest states.

The biggest winners are Virginia, DC,and Maryland. Hmmm.

John Thacker November 2, 2012 at 10:18 am

FEMA only dates from around 1979, IIRC. Before that disasters were declared by the federal government on an ad hoc basis. They’re still declared on an ad hoc basis, just the framework of FEMA encourages and allows them to be declared more often.

Brian Donohue November 2, 2012 at 10:50 am

I saw a report this morning about investigators running around and cracking unlicensed tree removal teams.

Clearly, this is problem #1. I feel safer already.

Hooray for consumer protection!

Pshrnk November 2, 2012 at 12:57 pm

This is similar to estimating the proper size of the military if there hasn’t been a war for awhile. What is the optimal ratio of full time soldiers to national guardsmen and reservists.

Donald Pretari November 2, 2012 at 1:12 pm

I though it was a good post, but I didn’t see any particular Ideology in the post.

Joseph November 2, 2012 at 2:48 pm

I think Mr. Weissmann is trying to paint FEMA as a monolithic organization when it is not. There are components that respond to emergencies such as Hurricane Sandy and there are components that prepare and train for future emergencies. While it is true that FEMA’s resources are limited and one dollar cannot be spent twice, FEMA does do both. In fact, one of the most important components of preparedness is gathering lessons learned which is done hand in glove with response officials.

byomtov November 2, 2012 at 9:54 pm

Nobody is taking the position, that I know of, saying get rid of FEMA,

Except Romney. Wake up.

nobody important November 3, 2012 at 2:27 am

I used to work at an insurance company. We had national catastrophe response teams – for almost everything that even approached a storm. (I’d sometimes go to work after a storm-front passed through and would surprised that a CAT was declared). Centralization seems to be the efficient way that my insurance company organized because CAT teams are needed for about 2-4wks out of a year in many places where claim volume swells by 10-20X overnight. To staff to handle that type of localized response requires building alot of slack into the system for the 90% of the year that much less capacity is required. All FWIW.

Economiser November 3, 2012 at 11:36 am

Some of these disaster response tasks require highly specialized knowledge. To take one example, the flooding we have seen here in NY is unlike anything in a generation or more. Vehicular and rail tunnels are flooded from floor to ceiling. There are no NY-based flood response teams with the specialized expertise to clear those areas quickly and safely. It’s far more efficient to have flood response teams that can come to NY for a generational event and go to Ohio for more frequent flood events.

Whether those teams should be backed by the federal government is an entirely different story. But it’s silly for each state to try to develop its own expertise sufficient to respond to infrequent disasters. And it’s silly to withhold that expertise from the sites of more common disasters.

Aaron November 3, 2012 at 4:51 pm

“When FEMA’s operational tempo is 100-plus disasters a year, it’s always having to do stuff. There’s not enough time to truly prepare for a catastrophic event. Time is a finite quantity. And when you’re spending time and money on 100-plus declarations, or over 200 last year, that taxes the system. It takes away time you could be spending getting ready for the big stuff.”

That actually seems like an argument to keep FEMA for me. If FEMA is handling 100+ disasters a year they’re probably getting pretty good at it, and when the big stuff happens it will be that much easier to scale up. If each state is handling the disasters themselves then sometimes they might handle 10 a year, sometimes they might handle none. So they’ll either be really unprepared for when something comes along, or completely over prepared for and wasting a ton of money. Nationalized disaster preparedness really seems to be the most efficient and effective way to handle disasters.

Andreas Moser November 4, 2012 at 7:57 am

The other interesting thing is how many people will now donate money to one of the world’s richest countries, like after the tsunami in Japan.
The same money would help much more in African or Asian countries: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2012/11/04/no-donations-for-sandy/

Brent November 5, 2012 at 10:35 am

Sure seems like the implication here is that FEMA should help people with tragedies along the coasts — when things like hurricanes and earthquakes hit, but not those in the Midwest/mountainous regions for fires and tornadoes.

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