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Disaster Declarations: Not Saying “No”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) calculated that a storm that hit Vermont months before Hurricane Irene cost $794,000
October 25, 2011

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) calculated that a storm that hit Vermont months before Hurricane Irene cost $794,000. Despite the relatively small amount of damage, President Obama declared the storm a major disaster, which made millions of dollars in federal disaster aid available to the state. The president made the declaration despite federal regulations specifying a $1 million threshold for public damage for a state to receive disaster assistance. According to FEMA, the declaration was accepted because the threshold is only a guideline.

The Vermont declaration is an example of how the federal government is designating hundreds of relatively low-cost storms as federal disasters, forcing FEMA to spend billions of dollars of its limited resources and budget millions more in future spending. FEMA has had its funds depleted six times since 2003, causing delays in thousands of reconstruction projects until Congress appropriated more funds.

Former FEMA leaders and federal reports show that the rapidly increasing number of disaster declarations has been an obstacle to FEMA’s preparations for such major catastrophes as Hurricane Katrina and has led states to depend too heavily on the federal government. Joe Allbaugh, head of FEMA from 2001 to 2003, said the problem is that no one refuses requests for disaster declarations, but the agency cannot continue saying yes all the time because then no individual states or local communities will strengthen their own programs and will remain overly reliant on FEMA. Of note, FEMA recently declined disaster assistance for the August earthquake in Virgina.

Read more on FEMA finances: ‘Disasters’ Strain FEMA Resources (USA Today 10/24/2011)

Find more information on FEMA disaster declarations: Record-Setting Year for Disaster Declarations (I.I.I. 10/3/2011)

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