Every year, FEMA provides disaster relief to millions of Americans. Suggestions that FEMA's responsibilities should be returned to the states are irresponsible and misunderstand efficiencies in public policy.
FEMA offers disaster expertise that states cannot match. Because weather and other natural disasters are unpredictable, it is difficult for state officials to have sufficient working knowledge about all disaster contingencies. We expect earthquakes in California and blizzards in Minnesota. However, when an earthquake or a blizzard hits Tennessee, the state is underprepared for such infrequent events. FEMA is ready.
Even when disasters affect states that are prepared and familiar, FEMA's resources play a key role in preparation and response. All governors—even those who criticize federal spending—readily ask for disaster assistance. Why? FEMA is staffed with the best disaster experts in the United States, experienced in dealing with all types of disaster and coordinating multiple levels of government.
From a public policy perspective, FEMA is an efficient use of public resources. The financial costs of disaster relief are immense, often exceeding the financial abilities of states. By spreading the costs of disaster relief across the nation, FEMA lowers the average cost to the taxpayer while providing universal access to its resources. In the context of Hurricane Sandy, the federal government is better equipped to absorb costs than is New Jersey alone.
Moreover, to expect a state to prepare for any type of disaster would be costly because the likelihood of a state experiencing a specific disaster every year is low, yet the costs are quite high. FEMA prepares for all disasters because it is certain that the United States will experience blizzards, floods, droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes annually.
Expecting every state to be prepared for every one of these events is public policy at its worst. It is the equivalent of asking every street in a city to purchase its own fire engine. Will a city have fires every year? Absolutely. Will each city street? Absolutely not.
FEMA efficiently centralizes and aggregates public resources. The United States does this with defense, weather monitoring, and air traffic control because the alternative is untenable. Devolving FEMA disaster relief to the states would be a catastrophic policy failure that would add further devastation to citizens who already experience disaster.
About John Hudak Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution
Steven Horwitz Mercatus Center Senior Affiliated Scholar
Tad DeHaven Budget Analyst at Cato
Matt Mayer Visiting Fellow at the Heritage Foundation