Along with heavy rains and winds, Hurricane Irene also brought more than a dozen new federal emergency declarations--each of which open up federal funding for state and local relief and response efforts. To date, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's website, President Obama has declared 24 emergencies and 66 major disaster declarations in 2011. So, also including those for fire management assistance, President Obama has made 181 FEMA declarations this year. That figure easily eclipses the previous record of 157 overall annual declarations set by Bill Clinton in 1996.
With four months left in the year, President Obama has declared 66 major disasters alone, which puts him on pace to surpass the record of 81, which he set last year, says Matt Mayer, president of the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a conservative think-tank based in Ohio, which tracks such declarations. Previously, Clinton in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2008 tied for the record for major disaster declarations, which stood at 75.
This trend, says Mayer, shows a federalization of natural disasters, in which costs for damages are shifted from the state in which they occur to the rest of the states and taxpayers in each. "We are incenting mayors and governors to defund emergency management, and we're making FEMA an agency, as a routine, that has little time for the catastrophic," he says. "There's an enormous pressure for FEMA to prove that it's fixed what was not working during Katrina, so that's why there's this overhyping to jump the gun on that. For the president, he's looking at poll numbers, and he has to be seen as a leader and in charge. This was a good opportunity for him to do that, and he did."
In the days after Irene, which happened almost exactly six years after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast in 2005, several members of Congress, state governors, and the media—even some of the president's biggest critics, like New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie—praised both FEMA and the president for their preparedness this time around. "So far, FEMA has been very responsive," said Christie on the This Week program Sunday, adding to a comment he made last week that Obama "deserves great credit for the way FEMA operated in this storm." [Vote: Should the U.S. Get Rid of FEMA , as Ron Paul Suggests?]
William Galston, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, says that it's just common sense to acknowledge that there are disasters that the whole country needs to get behind, and that's why such declarations, which extend federal resources to states in trouble, are necessary. "We need government to do what we can't do for ourselves, either as individuals or through voluntary associations, and we need more encompassing levels of government to do what smaller jurisdictions can't do for themselves," he says. "The premise behind FEMA is that there are some natural occurrences, an effective response to which will require, in a very compressed period of time, more human resources than states and localities can bring to bear by themselves."
As for the increased frequency of declarations, Galston says that perhaps the bar was too low in the past, or it could also be attributed to a greater frequency of disasters that require a response. "If you happen to believe in climate change, then you would predict that there would be a steady upward trend in the incidence of weather. ... But, you don't have to go there to see that there are spikes of natural disasters," he says. [Read: Joke or Not, Bachmann's Irene Comment Damaging.]
Though many agree that greater catastrophe was avoided, thanks in part to the federal help granted to states in advance of the storm, at least 40 people lost their lives to Irene and thousands still remain without power. The president has already made emergency declarations in 14 states, but only one major disaster has been declared so far in response to the hurricane, in Puerto Rico. It's likely that as damage is assessed, more major disaster declarations will be extended in more states to help them rebuild.