By Mary Kate Cary |
FEMA's responsibilities should not be handed over entirely to the states, and no serious person stands for that proposition. The fundamental issue centers on the whether FEMA should be involved in the routine natural disasters that, per the Stafford Act (FEMA's authorizing legislation), are not of "such severity and magnitude that those disasters overwhelm state and local capabilities."
Over the last two decades, more and more routine natural disasters that from 1787 to 1992 would have been entirely dealt with and paid for by states and localities have been nationalized by FEMA. From 28 FEMA declarations per year under President Ronald Reagan to more than 141 FEMA declarations per year under President Barack Obama, FEMA now gets involved with smaller scale events like tornadoes, snowstorms, floods, fires, and other events that have no national or regional impact.
Because a FEMA declaration comes with a shifting of at least 75 percent of costs to the federal government (read: the other 49 states), governors rush to FEMA as a cost-saving measure, not because their states are overwhelmed. With so many declarations being issued per year, FEMA resources (people, time, and money) are spread too thinly.
We need to save FEMA and its finite resources for the big events like Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, the Northridge earthquake, and the 9/11 terrorist attack; conversely, states and locals need to bear the costs of those routine natural disasters that occur in their states. Ohioans shouldn't have to subsidize tornadoes in Oklahoma and Oklahomans shouldn't have to subsidize floods in Ohio.
The federal government cannot do everything or be everywhere. By properly delineating roles and responsibilities, we can make sure that FEMA is prepared for the big events like Hurricane Sandy and gets states back in charge of dealing with and paying for the routine natural disasters that occur in their jurisdictions year after year.
Big storms do require big government, but little storms don't. Knowing the difference is the key to getting out of the fiscal mess we are presently in.
About Matt Mayer Visiting Fellow at the Heritage Foundation
Steven Horwitz Mercatus Center Senior Affiliated Scholar
Tad DeHaven Budget Analyst at Cato
John Hudak Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution