FEMA Proposes Major Cuts to Disaster Relief

by Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer

Immediately following a record-breaking Hurricane season, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is proposing massive cuts to federal disaster aid that would make it more difficult for states to qualify for federal disaster aid. 

The proposal, published Monday, would be one of the largest revisions of federal disaster policy in nearly 50 years. This proposal could be especially devastating to states like California and Florida which have seen record-breaking damage from wildfires and floods respectively and have been financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some experts, however, say that shifting responsibility to the states may be the only way to keep FEMA above water.

Why This Matters: Studies show that natural disasters are becoming stronger, more frequent, and more enduring as temperatures rise–and they cost the U.S. billions of dollars each year. If these costs are passed down to states, it could slow disaster response and cost lives. As the climate crisis intensifies, it’s counterintuitive that the federal government would make fewer relief dollars available instead of working to modernize the agency. 

more on that…The largest reinsurance company in the world, Swiss Re, found that in 2020, natural disasters caused $76 billion in insured losses in the United States, a 40% increase from 2019. Jerome Jean Haegeli, Swiss Re Group Chief Economist, says that climate change will be a test of resilience for the world economy. He explained, “while COVID-19 has an expiry date, climate change does not, and failure to ‘green’ the global economic recovery now will increase costs for society in future.” And as private insurance companies begin denying claims and canceling policies due to climate change, Americans will be ever more reliant on federal aid after natural disasters strike. 

Poor Timing: The proposal also converges with the National Weather Service’s major bandwidth shortage. The agency, which shares data with private organizations as well as other nations, is facing a shortage that could prevent them from distributing data to warn the public of damaging storms. 

The NWS says that without more bandwidth, it will have to throttle access to important data and impose restrictions on how often customers and partners access weather data and how much. The data is crucial for predicting the path of storms and helping local governments and residents prepare or evacuate. Increased damage will result in increased demand for federal aid, aid that may not come if FEMA’s new proposal is finalized. 

Additionally, states that once had the resources to take on more responsibility for disaster relief have suffered greatly from the pandemic, and the loss of federal aid now could leave them helpless. In Oklahoma, for instance, FEMA responded to a series of storms in 2017 that caused $5.1 million in damage while the state was building a $452 million budget surplus. Now, Oklahoma is facing a budget shortfall of over $1 billion.

A Balancing Act: Under the proposal, less affluent states like Alabama and Mississippi would be prioritized over wealthier states like New York and Connecticut. 

  • FEMA is moving to shift responsibility for “minor disasters” to state budgets, allowing it to focus more resources toward larger disasters. 
  • The agency has failed to effectively manage major disaster fallout before. 
  • In 2017, when Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria struck in quick succession, the agency was delayed in sending aid, in part because its staff was spread across the country assisting with more “minor disaster” relief. 

An investigation from E&E News found that the failure was due to the mismanagement of over $3 billion and thousands of employees. 

On the other hand, the investigation also found that FEMA was repeatedly spread too thin, granting disaster aid to states that had the resources to help themselves, paying up to 75% of recovery costs. FEMA has been trying to rein in spending for years with little success. However, Brock Long, who previously served as FEMA administrator, says that the demand from states consistently overwhelms the agency. “FEMA is dying a death by 1,000 cuts,” he said.FEMA’s new proposal would take years to implement (if it can even get through the rulemaking process) and will likely face backlash from states. Ultimately, it will fall on the Biden administration to find a balance between keeping the wheels turning at FEMA, and supporting state economies hit hard by the pandemic.

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