FEMA - Storms Ahead?

Romney Would Send FEMA Back To The States & Private Sector. Wait, Isn't That How FEMA Works Now?

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney famously said in 2011 that he'd take anything he could from the Federal Government and "send it back to the states, that's the right direction. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that's even better." When the moderator asked if that included disaster management he said "we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral."


People advised everyone to take Romney's comments in context, just as they advised when he told potential donors that he couldn't bothered with 47% of US citizens. So for context, a tornado had just ripped through Joplin, Missouri and Republicans in Congress were delaying federal funds, saying that FEMA didn't have the money. Perhaps, the analysts suggested, Romney was supporting his party's budget conscious ways but deep down inside he supported FEMA?

Congress finally came up with some FEMA money for Joplin, drawing up an aid package and offsetting the expenditures by cutting a $1.5 billion program to promote fuel-efficient vehicles. Now, asked frequently by reporters after Hurricane Sandy what his stance is, Romney doesn't answer, and his campaign confusingly assures people he wouldn't change FEMA.

Yet the numbers (such as they are, since Romney's campaign is elusive about it all) seem to belie his campaign's assurances. Obama would cut the FEMA budget by 3%, $453 million less in 2013 than 2012. Romney's FEMA, on the other hand, could be cut by as much as 40%. What would that mean for citizens?

Hurricane Issac

Hurricane Isaac Photo by NASA

"Send it Back" -- FEMA, The States & Private Sector

Curiously, Romney says of FEMA he'll "send back to the states", and "send it back to the private sector"? Is FEMA a lost pet that long ago wandered away, a flea-bitten, scavenging nuisance? Send it back home to the states - shoo, shoo, go back. Was disaster recovery ever a state enterprise? Even a century ago, the federal government assisted - in a way - during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake that destroyed the city and killed thousands. Documents show that the mayor authorized "Federal Troops" to "KILL any and all persons engaged in Looting...."

More importantly, although Romney implies that FEMA doesn't currently involve states or the private sector, in fact, FEMA works directly with states and the private sector. Before disaster strikes, FEMA coordinates with states to identify businesses and organizations and to contract with those who work during disasters. During and after the disaster, FEMA remains according to the state's needs. In the Obama administration's FEMA, the states lead, and the private sector does the work - so what, exactly, does Romney want to change?

When a disaster can be predicted, like Hurricane Sandy, states request federal disaster aid ahead of time. These early requests avoid debacles like FEMA's Hurricane Andrew response in Florida in 1992. Under George H.W. Bush, Florida was so stranded that the Miami Herald's headline screamed: "WE NEED HELP!", and one official took to the airways demanding: "Where in the hell is the cavalry on this one...They keep saying we're going to get supplies. For God's sake, where are they?" So FEMA prepares ahead of time, coordinating with the states, the private sector, faith-groups and community organizations.

During the 2011 tornadoes in the south, FEMA awarded $13,358,680 to local businesses in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia. 90% of that money went to small businesses. Some of these states are the poorest in the nation. If the Romney/Ryan execution of "drown [the government] in the bathtub" works, how will these states, these small businesses, these people, survive disasters?

FEMA: Love It or Hate It, As Politics Demand

During Hurricane Sandy, Republican governor Chris Christy of New Jersey praised President Obama and FEMA mightily, saying: "The President has been outstanding in this", and "[Obama] and his administration have been coordinating with us. It's been wonderful." It wasn't the first time. In 2011 he also appreciated FEMA.

Christie's wasn't some weird fluke of Republican FEMA love. Missouri Representative Billy Long, "Ozark Billy", was voted the "Most Conservative Officeholder" in Missouri by the American Conservative Union. He loudly campaigns that he's "fed up with Obama" and the "liberal agenda". He asks people to help him defeat Obama, kill regulations regulations, 'big government', and the EPA. But when FEMA money came his way after the 2011 tornadoes, he said something different. Then, he raved about FEMA: "On a scale of one to 10, they are a 12...I think they are doing an excellent job."

Janus-faced congressional leaders cut taxes for the wealthy, shrink federal government, deregulate, and cut benefits and salary of firefighters and police. They lavish praise on Obama's FEMA when politically expedient, then run on flimsy one-issue platforms of defeating him. Do they just all go home and laugh big hearty laughs: "LOL...Pick..Mee...LOL...power$$$...LOL"?

Obama promised change once he got elected. Mitt Romney gives us change before the election. He says he's a job "creator" (which handily resonates with both religious people and Rand acolytes), but would slash FEMA's local jobs. He wants the states responsible for FEMA, but FEMA already works so well with the states that Obama's harshest GOP critics flop all over themselves doling out praise. He wants to send FEMA to the private sector, but FEMA already works closely with the private sector - is the private sector.

FEMA, An Agency At The Mercy of Politics

For further clues about a Romney FEMA, we could glance back to history. Thirty years ago, 1979 President Carter established FEMA to centralize the responsibilities of many federal agencies by rolling under one umbrella related disaster preparedness and response departments and functions. Since then, different administrations have used FEMA differently, and it pretty much follows party lines.

When led well, FEMA saves lives and hard hit communities. It's hardly noticed. When used as a political dumping ground by the GOP, citizens suffer. When it fails, the world notices.1 When it fails FEMA gets picked up by politicians as the GOP poster child for "inefficient, wasteful government... justifying further cuts. Citizens suffer more.

For years, the US has been consolidating government functions, cutting costs, and eliminating redundancies. That's business and these actions reflect the core of all multi-million dollar consulting advice, long Romney's bread and butter. Would Romney, who campaigns that America wants a "grown-up" business leader, split FEMA up into 50 little pieces, all with their own redundant leadership, politics, heavy equipment, budgets and levels of experience?

Of course not, you might say, hopefully. Then what? The scope of FEMA's work is easy to underestimate. But FEMA was a bumbling disaster with Hurricanes Andrew and Hugo under George H.W. Bush, a "turkey farm" for political appointees who limo-ed and lunched their way around DC, whispering cold war themes of the pre-Reagan days.

President Clinton completely revamped FEMA by appointing James Lee Witt, the first person to lead the agency who actually had disaster management experience. Witt reorganized FEMA into a responsive, functioning organization, coordinating with states. As California Senator Feinstein remarked, the reorganized FEMA was "like night and day" compared to George H.W. Bush's agency.

But George W. Bush changed that. His appointee Michael Brown, known as "Brownie", headed FEMA during Hurricane Katrina and no reporter failed to point out his gaffes, miscalculations, and ineptitudes, noting his previous short-lived stint as commissioner of an Arabian horse association.2

Can Ozarkian Churches and Good Neighbors Replace FEMA?

FEMA has lots to recommend it. It can respond in a coordinated way to multi-state disasters. States like New York and California pay more taxes than states like Missouri and Alabama, but at least for now, that doesn't mean Missouri residents get the disaster assistance of Laos, whereas New York citizens get the disaster assistance of Monaco. But one could imagine this being different.

How would local politics affect the distribution of aid in a more decentralized FEMA? New Jersey Governor Christie apparently has been in a long standing feud with the Atlantic City mayor. The night of Hurricane Sandy he announced on TV that Atlantic City residents were on their own, because they hadn't evacuated like he told them to. How would this sort of hyper-local politics play out if states were the sole owners of disaster response?

The idea that faith-groups and neighbors can step in in lieu of governments is commonly promoted. This goes for international aid as well as national disaster relief. Despite media assertions, however, good neighbors cannot replace "big government". Indeed, FEMA has for years worked directly with faith-based and community organizations, coordinating disaster planning and reimbursing them for work they do. 3 Because even with faith, Missouri's Ozarkians cannot muster their own tornado recovery.

Shhh....Don't Say It

Like those old homilies about not talking politics at Thanksgiving, politicians like Obama and Romney don't dare talk about climate change. So amidst a chaotic swirl of tornadoes, hurricanes, deaths, and billions of dollars of damages, elected officials instead play Atlantic City games of trading FEMA aid for a fuel-efficient vehicles program.

And then in the midst of denying climate change, we hear from the Republican candidate that "it's immoral" to spend government money on "things" like hurricane disasters? Send it back to the private sector? Such as? There are some great carpenters in Breezy Point and a Comfort Inn a few towns over...good luck with that Mr. JoneSmith? Or...should FEMA activities be turned over to the military? Send it back to 1906?

Romney's comments and his failure to give detail on this issue deserves far more relentless attention. Our government may be in debt. But then maybe we should discuss more publicly the long term costs and benefits of oil-fueled military adventures that consume about a quarter of our national budget, versus, say, our investments into alternative energy? As we ignore climate change the disasters intensify. The longer we don't demand climate change action from our government, the more important FEMA becomes, the more critical government back-up is to our survival as individuals and communities -- therefore the more expensive FEMA becomes. WHY DON'T WE TALK ABOUT THAT?

Spooky times.


1 When the Acquila earthquake struck Italy in 2009, papers congratulated their countrymen for doing such an excellent clean-up job compared to the US during Hurricane Katrina (Italy is hardly the paragon of disaster-preparedness and Acquila still lies in ruins).

2 George W. Bush's first FEMA director was Joseph Allbaugh. After leaving FEMA he
"became a lobbyist for no-bid reconstruction contracts in Iraq and obtained a $100 million no-bid contract for the Shaw Group to pump water out of New Orleans. Michael Brown now works for an emergency management consulting firm and briefly considered becoming a paid consultant to St. Bernard Parish, a New Orleans suburb hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, a move that led the New Republic to satirically award him the "Brass Cojones of the Year."

Federal government service is a good launching point for the private sector.

3 Over some church leader objections.

Acronym Required wrote about FEMA in posts during and after Hurricane Katrina.

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