Legal Issues In the News

FEMA and Disaster Aid


Four days after Hurricane Harvey’s landfall in Houston, Texas Health and Human Services was trucking clean water to displaced residents, and taking other steps to reduce human suffering in southeast Texas.  Other agencies worked to evacuate stranded residents, and to provide necessary medical care.  But sweeping disasters that affect millions of people across a wide area require more support than state agencies can manage.

The United States Federal Emergency Management Agency, called “FEMA,” coordinates the national response to disasters that occur in the United States.  To obtain FEMA help, the affected state’s governor must declare a state of emergency, and then ask the President for federal help.  And then, federal aid is sent to areas devastated by flooding, fire, and other natural disasters, such as Hurricane Harvey.

FEMA is now one of 23 federal agencies that are part of the Department of Homeland Security.  Before that department existed, FEMA was an independent governmental agency.  Following the failed FEMA response to Hurricane Katrina, some called for FEMA to become independent again. 

One difficulty is that FEMA has many obligations, and these compete for a limited amount of funding.  In addition to responding to disasters, FEMA is responsible for planning to reduce the risk and scope of potential disasters.  The agency has programs that analyze flood and earthquake dangers, and that anticipate and plan for damages due to tropical storms and hurricanes.  FEMA also makes sure that flood insurance is available to homeowners in flood plains, and works to relocate or elevate at-risk structures. 

But there has been neither uniform praise or abundant funding for FEMA’s work.  Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a Bipartisan committee investigated FEMA’s failed response.  Its Final Report noted that federal funding for disaster preparedness was not awarded unless local agencies tagged the funding request as responding to “Just Terrorism.”  Emergency management personnel’s testimony confirmed that counter-terrorism measures received priority in agency funding. 

Both counter-terrorism and disaster planning are compelling needs, and we reduce their funding at great peril to human safety.

Homeland Security’s current annual budget is $41 billion, and FEMA’s share is $13 billion.  This must cover training for its personnel, response coordination, the deployment of its Disaster Medical Assistance and Urban Search and Rescue Teams, pay for its overhead and equipment, and support its other missions, too.  President Trump’s proposed federal budget would increase Homeland Security’s funding by $2.8 Billion.  That increase, however, is to be spent building a wall between the United States and Mexico, and on greatly increasing the number of Border Patrol and Customs Enforcements agents.  In fact, the President’s proposed budget would cut $667 million from FEMA’s grant programs to state and local agencies.  These cuts include pre-disaster mitigation funding.

Of course, we cannot plan for all dire contingencies.  “Sometimes, history takes things into its own hands,” as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall once said.  But the quality of our government’s response to Hurricane Harvey should inform our future FEMA spending.