It looks like the federal government will finally be approving desperately needed disaster aid to devastated U.S. communities. A vote on Capitol Hill on Monday night comes after a single member of the House of Representatives blocked passage of the bill, already approved by the Senate, not once, not twice, but three times. In each case, a different Republican representative stood up to object to the $19 billion bill because of the procedure for the vote, its supposedly high cost or, in one instance, that it didn’t include border-related funding.
It’s easy, and not incorrect, to chalk the obstruction of this already overdue bill up to partisan politics. But partisan politics isn’t the only reason that getting disaster assistance to those who need it — including communities hit by tornados, military bases damaged by flooding and farmers who lost crops in sudden freezes — is itself a disaster of planning and management.
The recent congressional squabbling is just an extreme demonstration of a dysfunctional system that treats disasters as exceptional, endlessly surprising events.
These catastrophes are growing more frequent, more intense and more expensive as populations grow in size and density, and disaster management has accordingly become an increasingly important part of the government’s duties. The federal government should be taking clear responsibility for disasters by developing more consistent standards for funding and implementation rather than dealing with crises on a subjective basis and leaving much-needed funding open to ideological haggling. The recent congressional squabbling is just an extreme demonstration of a dysfunctional system that treats disasters as exceptional, endlessly surprising events.
Disaster response is a fairly recent addition to the responsibilities of federal government. In the 1800s and early 1900s, it was primarily handled at the municipal level, often by wealthy private citizens or their businesses and supported by charitable subscription (a mechanism now known as crowdfunding). Through the first half of the 20th century, federal support for disaster response was mainly delivered through piecemeal tax relief and reconstruction loans. The Federal Emergency Management Agency wasn’t established until 1978, and even then it was intended primarily for support and coordination, not as an agency that had resources on the scale of other departments or directly implemented disaster response.
In other words, the role of the federal government has expanded drastically both in the public imagination and in practice. But it’s a role that remains largely ad hoc and undefined. While the specific timing and intensity of any given disaster is usually a surprise, we are able to predict the most likely disasters as well as their probable impacts. Hurricane Katrina was foreshadowed in great detail in a simulation exercise conducted just the year before. More important, even if we don’t know exactly which disasters will occur when, we do know that they are coming. It’s unconscionable that we have to wait for a full quorum in the House to decide, after the fact, whether we will bother to fund the response to those disasters.
True, there is now a national agency dedicated to emergency management, and the federal Disaster Relief Fund provides a pool of money for dealing with “general” disasters, allowing for more flexibility. Both of those mechanisms, however, are dependent on presidential declarations of an emergency or a disaster: an individual and subjective decision. Without objective criteria or standardized mechanisms, it’s easy for such decisions to become politicized. Indeed, Thomas Garrett and Russell Sobel in 2002 found that “states politically important to the president have a higher rate of disaster declaration by the president,” and that disaster funding is greater in states whose representatives serve on the congressional committees that oversee FEMA.
This is not a new situation; it’s what has evolved from a history of handling disasters in patchwork fashion rather than seriously and systematically as an integral area of public policy. But it does mean that the quality and distribution of disaster funds are dependent on the current president’s seriousness about and attitude toward emergency response. President Donald Trump’s opposition to additional aid to Puerto Rico in this bill, for instance, which he bolstered by falsely claiming on Twitter that the island had received far more aid than it has, is only the latest time his inclinations have worsened assistance to hurricane victims on the island. As hurricane season approaches and tornadoes sweep through the country in unprecedented numbers, consider whether you want assistance to your community determined in part based on your state’s political importance.
Consider whether you want assistance to your community determined in part based on your state’s political importance.
While researching 2005’s Hurricane Katrina for my doctoral dissertation, I found that this lack of established guidelines and federal presence meant local officials or even volunteers in the midst of an intense emergency, under pressure and often without experience or training, had to make crucial decisions on their own because they had no guidance in principle or practice doing so. For example, local officials decided when it was time to seize food from supermarkets to be distributed to the public versus when to guard the assets of local businesses, as well as whether to help only those in their jurisdiction or everyone who needed assistance. (Incidentally, this problem is not unique to the United States. I found a similar lack of standardization while researching Japan’s response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami).
As I know from my work with nongovernmental organizations in the international humanitarian sector, it is possible to create useful standards and indicators that take into account the variety of potential disasters. Indeed, the U.S. often requires such standards to fund international disaster responses — but doesn’t apply them domestically.
Until we accept that disasters are inevitable and come to some consensus about what the federal government owes us in managing them, it is all too easy for the process to be held hostage, leaving communities in need and the agencies that are supposed to help them too cash-strapped to do their jobs.