Federal Disaster Relief Is a Mess

While Congress plays at cutting a few billion dollars from the bloated federal budget, the larger financial disaster hanging over us is Washington’s promises to pay the multibillion-dollar costs of Hurricane Katrina and of hurricanes and earthquakes to come. How did we get into this mess?

It started small. Huge deficit-builders are always as small as newborn pandas at first, although hardly as cute. When Minnesota suffered flooding in 1950, Rep. Harold Hagen asked his congressional colleagues to provide relief for his state. He introduced a bill that became the Disaster Relief Act, the federal government’s first means of creating "an orderly and continuing method of rendering assistance to the states and local governments in alleviating suffering and damage." The bill’s price tag was only $5 million.

Disaster relief, like Social Security and Medicaid, then expanded, as Congress 13 times through 1980 responded to other tough situations by adding on grants for temporary housing, legal help and mental health. Presidents began issuing more declarations of calamity: Dwight Eisenhower averaged 13 per year; John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, 18; Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, 37.

The annual average dropped to 32 during the Carter administration and 28 during the Reagan years. But the number jumped under George H.W. Bush, who averaged 43 declarations annually, and it was off to the races with Bill Clinton, who more than doubled the total to 88 and was the first president to make snowstorms official disasters. George W. Bush has gone even further: During his first term he averaged 136 declarations per year, or one every 2.7 days, although there were fewer hurricanes (and fewer major hurricanes) than during the 1950s.

Jimmy Carter in 1979 tried to make sense of disaster relief by establishing FEMA via executive order. He stated that the new structure would "permit more rational decisions of the relative costs and benefits of alternative approaches to disasters." Carter was wrong: Presidents kept reacting politically, and local and state officials kept passing the buck and asking for bucks.

None of the Katrina debate is really new, not even for the Bush family: When Hurricane Andrew caused huge damage in Florida in 1992, Dade County officials on television screamed that President Bush didn’t care, and he (during a futile re-election attempt) promised them a multibillion-dollar moon over Miami.

Andrew’s $35 billion in losses, along with the $44 billion in losses from the Northridge, Calif., earthquake in 1994, made even some in Washington stagger. A House Bipartisan Natural Disasters Task Force, a Senate Bipartisan Task Force on Funding Disaster Relief and even Al Gore’s "National Performance Review" took FEMA to task. The Gore group report noted that "the ready availability of federal funds may actually contribute to disaster losses by reducing incentives for hazard mitigation and preparedness."

The result was that FEMA underwent another reorganization and announced in 1995 that one of its main goals was to "reduce the loss of life, property and the environment (sic) by 50 percent over the next 25 years." Early in 2001, when that goal and reality were clearly headed in opposite directions, a new administration’s first FEMA director, Bush confidant Joe Allbaugh, testified before Congress that federal assistance was "an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective state and local risk management."

Nothing changed, though. With disaster relief seen as a federal responsibility, local and state governments have a license to be improvident, and even a fiduciary responsibility to local taxpayers not to spend money that Washington will otherwise provide. Bailouts encourage sleep-ins.

We need to find new ways to offer and fund disaster relief. We also need to examine the cost to the individuals who receive not just emergency assistance, but long-term FEMA support. Just as local and state officials have come to see themselves not as leaders but as lobbyists for more federal aid, so many evacuees ask not what they can do for themselves, but what the country can do for them.