How a Smart Conservative Would Reform FEMA

Hurricane Sandy has focused attention on Mitt Romney's comment that we should shrink the Federal Emergency Management Agency and give states more responsibility for dealing with natural disasters. Is he right? Could conservative reforms actually save FEMA -- and save lives? To get a sense of what a thoughtful Republican plan for the agency might look like, I called Matt Mayer, a former Bush administration official in the Department of Homeland Security and visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What did you make of Romney's comments about FEMA?

He didn't artfully state the point I think he was trying to make.

I think his thrust was that there is an appropriate role for states and local governments, and there is an appropriate role for the federal government. And we've kind of lost sight of that in terms of disaster response. We've nationalized so many of the events over the last few decades that the federal government is involved in virtually every disaster that happens. And that's not the way it's supposed to be. It stresses FEMA unnecessarily. And it allows states to shift costs from themselves to other states, while defunding their own emergency management because Uncle Sam is going to pay. That's not good for anyone.

When FEMA's operational tempo is 100-plus disasters a year, it's always having to do stuff. There's not enough time to truly prepare for a catastrophic event. Time is a finite quantity. And when you're spending time and money on 100-plus declarations, or over 200 last year, that taxes the system. It takes away time you could be spending getting ready for the big stuff.

Nobody is taking the position, that I know of, saying get rid of FEMA, the federal government should have no role responding to disasters. The position is, no no, we need to save FEMA and the Federal Government for the big stuff: Sandy, Katrina, Northridge. But states should be charged to take care of the other, more routine stuff that happens every year. There are always going to be Tornadoes in Oklahoma and Arkansas. There are always going to be floods in northwest Ohio and Iowa. There are always to be snowstorms in the Northeast. There are always going to be rain storms, fires in Colorado. They happen every year. There's no surprise here. And they don't have national or regional implications, economically or otherwise. If they do, that's a different question.

Why do you think Washington has assumed so much responsibility for dealing with disasters?

I think the first real change was when James Lee Witt was put in charge of FEMA during the Clinton administration, and for the first time it wasn't a Washington Bureaucrat or a former military person. For the first time, it was someone who came from the states and spent most of their career in the states. And so he brought a very state-centric position. And it was also the first time a former politician was put in charge of FEMA. He ran for office seven times in Arkansas, and he brought a very political mindset to FEMA. One of his famous quotes was: "Disasters are inherently political events." And I think that created the opportunity to start using FEMA as an entity that could get involved in things in a way that would have political outcomes. And I think you saw that in 1996, when FEMA eclipsed any record it had previously set and issued 158 declarations in an election year. It was just unprecedented. And it's not like there was just some flurry of activity. They just got involved in lots and lots of different disasters.

So that's one area. I think another issue is some people see the failed response to Hurricane Andrew as the reason George H.W. Bush lost Florida to Clinton. So now, you have presidents who are very concerned about the potential impact, from an election standpoint, of disasters. That created an incentive to nationalize things. Governors also quickly figured out that, hey, if we can get FEMA to issue a declaration, 75 percent or more of our costs get shifted from our state to the other 49 states. So that's a way for them to save money. And then they can divert that money they would have used for disasters to schools, bridges, and other things that get votes more routinely for them.

And I think the final piece is the failure to adjust the monetary threshold for states for inflation.

So you think FEMA's decision-making process is outdated?

There are two thresholds for FEMA to get involved in a disaster. First, there's the Stafford Act. What it says is: "of such severity and magnitude that it overwhelms state and local resources." Very few of the disasters in the last twenty years have been of such severity and magnitude that they truly overwhelm state and local resources. That gets ignored routinely. Then, from a regulatory standpoint, each state has a dollar figure based on population and total damage. And if you hit this number, then that makes you qualified to get the major disaster declaration and the costs shift and everything gets triggered. That number has not been adjusted in over two decades. I've written about this, and so has the Office of the Inspector General, who has said, "Hey, this is kind of crazy!" A huge number of declarations that were granted, if we just adjusted that dollar figure for inflation, would never have met the threshold.

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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