Suggesting that FEMA's emergency responsibilities be handed over to the states is a dangerous proposition that will interrupt the evolution of a stable emergency management system, and will ultimately place more citizens and more property at risk.
FEMA was founded in 1979, following a policy-advocacy process brought about by the National Governors Association. They needed help shoving aside the futile civil defense bureaucracy in Washington (with its emphasis on surviving all-out nuclear war), and they needed a single agency where they could turn for assistance in coordinating disaster victim relief, temporary housing, business loans, and reconstruction.
In the period through the '80s and early '90s, FEMA was regarded as a haven for political appointments, but it reached a high point of professionalism (and Cabinet status) in the Clinton years under James Lee Witt. It was restructured and reorganized again in the Bush administration after 9/11, when it was placed within the Department of Homeland Security. Then the entire national emergency management strategy was restructured another time after Hurricane Katrina, rightfully considering the failures of the Katrina response.
Management scientists estimate it takes an organization 10 years to institutionalize change, but FEMA has been structurally changed and repurposed much more frequently than that, often with the arrival of a new administration. Casual talk about dismantling FEMA now, or "returning" its responsibilities to the states disregards a key point: This isn't just about FEMA, it's about a commitment to a long and critical process of building our national emergency planning capabilities.
FEMA has never supplanted the responsibilities of states and localities to respond to disasters. Local initiatives are the backbone of disaster management. But by definition a disaster is an event that surpasses those capabilities, and that requires assistance from elsewhere. FEMA's principal role is coordination of government agencies and the disaster-oriented private and nonprofit organizations. If there were no FEMA, something like FEMA would have to be developed, in each disaster.
Rather than putting the weight of disaster response back on the states, it makes far more sense to invest now into infrastructures of protection that will reduce our national exposure to disasters—and we should put more, not less, into FEMA's disaster relief fund. Costlier storms are the new normal in the United States. It makes no sense to pretend we live in a time when states can go it alone.
About James M. Kendra Associate Professor at Drexel University, Director of the Disaster Research Center
About Scott Gabriel Knowles Associate Professor at Drexel University, Director of the Disaster Research Center
Steven Horwitz Mercatus Center Senior Affiliated Scholar
Tad DeHaven Budget Analyst at Cato
Matt Mayer Visiting Fellow at the Heritage Foundation
John Hudak Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution