The complete disaster management cycle includes the shaping of public policies and plans that either modify the causes of disasters or mitigate their effects on people, property, and infrastructure.
FEMA’s grants for disaster preparedness are known for wastefulness. As for the NFIP, its insurance subsidies are spurring development in flood-prone areas, which in turn is increasing the damage caused by floods. The NFIP also encourages an expansion of federal regulatory control over local land-use planning.
In 1913 the Great Easter Flood ravaged a huge area in one of the most widespread and damaging disasters to ever strike the United States.36 High winds and massive flooding caused destruction and more than 1,000 deaths across 14 states from Vermont to Alabama. The U.S. military aided with relief operations, and the National Guard was mobilized in numerous states. Americans responded with huge contributions to the Red Cross and other charitable organizations aiding victims.37
In 1968 the National Flood Insurance Act offered federal insurance to properties at risk for flooding. A key justification by supporters of federal flood insurance was that it would alleviate the need to pass special aid legislation after each flood disaster. As it has turned out, however, taxpayers are now both subsidizing flood insurance and paying for special relief bills passed after floods.
The main federal organization that responded was the U.S. Army, which moved quickly to take control of the city and provide water, food, tents, and other relief items. Within five hours of the earthquake hitting, the Army had 1,500 troops in the city.34 Some of the actions of the Army were controversial, but the swift response by the commander of the nearby Presidio base is an example of how local resources and local decisionmaking are crucial in the aftermath of disasters.35
Another blunder was that FEMA did not arrange for pre-positioned supplies at locations close to the coming hurricane because of its misunderstanding of actions allowed before a presidential disaster declaration.106 In the days leading up to Andrew’s landfall, the Department of Defense readied supplies to be shipped to South Florida, but because of FEMA’s flawed understanding of proper procedures, it did not authorize the shipments.
58 GAO, “Federal Disaster Assistance,”: Improved Criteria Needed to Assess a Jurisdiction’s Capability to Respond and Recover on Its Own,” GAO-12-838, September 2012, p. 34.
57 These figures are for DRF spending 2004–2011. See GAO, “Federal Disaster Assistance: Improved Criteria Needed to Assess a Jurisdiction’s Capability to Respond and Recover on Its Own,” GAO-12-838, September 2012, p. 19.
55 This figure is for 2004–2011. See Government Accountability Office (GAO), “Federal Disaster Assistance: Improved Criteria Needed to Assess a Jurisdiction’s Capability to Respond and Recover on Its Own,” GAO-12-838, September 2012.
53 The law’s full title is the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988, P.L. 93-288. See Bruce R. Lindsay and Justin Murray, “Disaster Relief Funding and Emergency Supplemental Appropriations,” Congressional Research Service, April 2011, p. 4. And see Francis X. McCarthy and Jared T. Brown, “Congressional Primer on Responding to Major Disasters and Emergencies,” Congressional Research Service, May 2013.
17 Jennifer K. Elsea and R. Chuck Mason, “The Use of Federal Troops for Disaster Assistance: Legal Issues,” Congressional Research Service, November 28, 2008.
3 Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, P.L. 93-288. For a discussion, see Francis X. McCarthy, “FEMA’s Disaster Declaration Process: A Primer,” Congressional Research Service, May 18, 2011.
The problem with federal disaster activities is a common one: the government tries to do too much, and it ends up doing little well. In government, less is nearly always more. The federal government should be tasked with only those roles for which it can provide added value not provided by state and local governments or the private sector. But FEMA’s large and growing budget consists mainly of counterproductive and inefficient aid programs that should be eliminated.
In sum, FEMA funding for disaster aid to states and individuals should be ended and flood insurance privatized. Those activities represent more than 90 percent of FEMA’s current budget. Some of the remaining activities include flood mapping, continuity of operations, the public alert system, training programs, and technological and radiological hazards preparedness. Those activities should be moved to other agencies, and FEMA closed down.
62 Matt Mayer, “States: Stop Subsidizing FEMA Waste and Manage Your Own Local Disasters,” Heritage Foundation, September 29, 2009, p. 7.