Why the Director of FEMA Likes Rationing

A gas station in Staten Island following Superstorm Sandy (Lucas Jackson / Reuters) ( )
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The best way to turn Americans against something is to call it rationing. The notion of scarcity sends them into paroxysms of fear that they’re sliding into the third world.

But sometimes a little rationing isn’t such a bad thing, argues Craig Fugate, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. One of his major projects has been to rethink the way the government responds to disasters. For example, he wants to start referring to people who have been through a disaster as “survivors” rather than “victims,” and he gets irritated about the tendency among planners to treat the public as a passive, helpless mass. (For much more on his idea of “whole-community” response, read my extended Q&A with him.)

Take gasoline supply. Disasters naturally lead to shortages, but government officials have a mortal fear of using the “r” word, Fugate said, summarizing their mentality as, “That’s a bad thing to do because then the people will panic.”

In reality, he said, it’s often the opposite.

After Superstorm Sandy hit three years ago, long queues built up to fuel up outside filling stations. Stories of the chaos as drivers tried to fuel up conjured scenes of apocalypse, or at least the 1973 oil embargo.

In other words, people were already panicked. Then the governors of New Jersey and New York instituted gas rationing. A recipe for disaster, right?

“On the day they went to rationing, there was rationality back in the market,” Fugate told me. “Demand went down. And nothing had changed, other than people said, ‘Well, now there’s a plan!’”

That’s an important lesson about how the public actually reacts, versus the way officials imagine it might react. Simply knowing there’s a plan for coordinating after a disaster instills a (reasonable) sense of confidence among citizens and allows them to try get back to normal life, rather than frantically trying to stockpile.

“This whole perception that the public would panic at the idea of rationing, meaning we don’t have enough gas—well, they were not doing rational buying in the first place,” Fugate said. “It again comes back to this idea that the public is a liability and you should treat them as such, as children.”