FEMA: What Happens When the Well Runs Dry?

By: MaryAnn Grover, L’19

2017 has been described as a historically catastrophic year by the agency tasked with dealing with those catastrophes.[1] In 2017, almost eight percent of the United States population was affected by significant natural disasters, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) received more registrations for their Individual Assistance program than were received for Hurricanes Rita, Wilma, Katrina, and Sandy combined.[2] In fact, “FEMA supported 59 major disaster declarations, 16 emergency declarations, and 62 fire management assistance grant declarations” in 2017.[3]

Despite this dramatic increase in need, FEMA has had to face this unprecedented number of natural disasters with a relatively stagnant budget.[4] In fiscal year 2017, FEMA received an annual appropriation of $7.3 billion.[5] Following Hurricane Harvey, Congress allocated an additional $15 billion in relief,[6] bringing FEMA’s total budget to $22.3 billion for fiscal year 2017. While some thought that $22.3 billion would cover a lot of ground, in reality, it was only “a drop in the bucket.”[7] Industry officials approximate the combined damage for Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma between $150 billion to $200 billion.[8] That amount of damage accounts for only 2 of the 59 major disaster declarations issued in 2017, meaning that FEMA’s entire budget  for fiscal year 2017 accounts for only 11.15% to 14.87% of the total cost of damages for 2 of the 59 major disaster declarations.

At a time when FEMA Administrator, Brock Long, says “resources are stretched,” the budget deficit trend does not appear to be changing.[9] FEMA’s lack of resources harms those most vulnerable in society. This is particularly true where “99 percent success can still mean disaster” to the agency and those the agency serves.[10] Such a burden is born by residents of Puerto Rico, California, Texas, Florida, and the other 35 states, tribes, and territories that FEMA operated in throughout 2017. The fact of the matter is that for FEMA the well is running dry, and those who will be left thirsty are those most in need.[11]

This budget deficit also comes at a time when the Administration’s focus is elsewhere. FEMA, a part of the Department of Homeland Security, draws its funding from the Department of Homeland Security’s budget. Also included within the Department of Homeland Security’s budget are Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Control. In President Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018, he prioritized these two agencies and their attempts to target illegal immigration.[12] In fact, under President Trump’s proposed budget, funding would increase over 21% for Customs and Border Protection and nearly 30% for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.[13] In staggering contrast, FEMA would sustain an 11% cut in funding.[14] It is critical to ask how FEMA can continue to prepare for future natural disasters, when FEMA not only does not even have the funding to respond to natural disasters as they occur but their limited budget is currently under significant threat of reduction.

FEMA was founded in 1979 with a mission “to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from and mitigate all hazards.”[15] FEMA, through their Individual and Community Preparedness Division, emphasizes that “when disaster strikes, it is often individual citizens who are the first true responders on the ground helping neighbors, colleagues or friends.”[16] The acts of compassion of these individuals are on display after every natural disaster. These individuals are celebrated and honored, in part as a tribute to emergency preparedness programs promoted by FEMA. If we truly value such responses to natural disasters, providing additional funding to FEMA to address critical needs arising from such disasters is one way to demonstrate our commitment to disaster relief.

 

 

[1] Fed. Emergency Mgmt. Agency, HQ-17-191, FEMA Reflects on Historic Year (Dec. 29, 2017).

[2] Fed. Emergency Mgmt. Agency, HQ-17-191, FEMA Reflects on Historic Year (Dec. 29, 2017).

[3] Fed. Emergency Mgmt. Agency, HQ-17-191, FEMA Reflects on Historic Year (Dec. 29, 2017).

[4] See Dep’t of Homeland Sec., FY 2018 Budget in Brief (2017); see also Dep’t of Homeland Sec., FY 2017 Budget in Brief (2016); see also Dep’t of Homeland Sec., FY 2016 Budget in Brief (2015); see also Dep’t of Homeland Sec., FY 2015 Budget in Brief (2015); see also Dep’t of Homeland Sec., FY 2014 Budget in Brief (2015); see also Dep’t of Homeland Sec., FY 2013 Budget in Brief (2015).

[5] John Kruzel, How the U.S. Funds Disaster Recovery, PolitiFact (Sept. 14, 2017, 6:32 PM), http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2017/sep/14/how-us-funds-disaster-recovery/.

[6] John Kruzel, How the U.S. Funds Disaster Recovery, PolitiFact (Sept. 14, 2017, 6:32 PM), http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2017/sep/14/how-us-funds-disaster-recovery/.

[7] John Kruzel, How the U.S. Funds Disaster Recovery, PolitiFact (Sept. 14, 2017, 6:32 PM), http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2017/sep/14/how-us-funds-disaster-recovery/.

[8] See Zahra Hirji, 2017 Was A Record-High Year for Billion-Dollar US Disasters, BᴜᴢᴢFᴇᴇᴅNᴇᴡꜱ (Jan. 8, 2018, 11:27 AM), https://www.buzzfeed.com/zahrahirji/billion-dollar-disasters-in-2017?utm_term=.bu6rarVGR#.pxXBJBR3z; see also John Kruzel, How the U.S. Funds Disaster Recovery, PolitiFact (Sept. 14, 2017, 6:32 PM), http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2017/sep/14/how-us-funds-disaster-recovery/.

[9] Manny Fernandez, et al., Still Waiting for FEMA in Texas and Florida After Hurricanes, N.Y. Times (Oct. 22, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/22/us/fema-texas-florida-delays-.html.

[10] Ron Nixon, Trump’s Leader for FEMA Wins Praise, but Proposed Budget Cuts Don’t, N.Y. Times (July 21, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/21/us/politics/trumps-leader-for-fema-wins-praise-but-proposed-budget-cuts-dont.html.

[11] See generally Adrian Florido, FEMA to End Food and Water Aid for Puerto Rico, NPR (Jan. 29, 2018 4:05 PM), https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/01/29/581511023/fema-to-end-food-and-water-aid-for-puerto-rico.

[12]  Ron Nixon, Job One at Homeland Security Under Trump: Immigration, N.Y. Times (July 13, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/13/us/politics/dhs-immigration-trump.html?mtrref=www.google.com&gwh=B75556923ADCB2C4A0697D50597D81D5&gwt=pay.

[13] Ron Nixon, Job One at Homeland Security Under Trump: Immigration, N.Y. Times (July 13, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/13/us/politics/dhs-immigration-trump.html?mtrref=www.google.com&gwh=B75556923ADCB2C4A0697D50597D81D5&gwt=pay.

[14] Kaeli Subberwal, Petition Urges Congress to Fund FEMA, Not Trump’s Border Wall, Huffington Post (Aug. 30, 2017, 1:48 PM), https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/petition-fema-funding-border-wall_us_59a6e5d0e4b084581a14e6d2.

[15] Fed. Emergency Mgmt. Agency, About the Agency, FEMA, https://www.fema.gov/about-agency.

[16] Fed. Emergency Mgmt. Agency, HQ-17-191, FEMA Reflects on Historic Year (Dec. 29, 2017).

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