While Hurricane Irma was barreling through the Caribbean this past week and bearing down on Florida, the balance in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund was approaching zero. With only hours before the fund would be depleted, Congress passed legislation to replenish it so that more aid — just a fraction of the total ultimately needed — would be available for victims of Irma as well as Hurricane Harvey, which caused devastating flooding in Texas and Louisiana.
Disaster relief became a bargaining chip in a broader deal between President Trump and Democratic leaders to raise the nation’s debt limit and keep the federal government open at least until December. It was a white-knuckle exercise that had to overcome opposition from some Republicans opposed to increasing the debt limit and adding spending for disaster relief without covering the cost with cuts elsewhere in the budget.
There has to be a better way of getting aid to disaster victims. As the latest episode makes clear, the process is too often piecemeal, partisan, and prone to getting sidetracked by unrelated issues. It subjects states and their residents bracing for or reeling from disasters to even more uncertainty and anxiety.
Budgeting for disasters ahead of time
To their credit, Florida’s two U.S. senators, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Bill Nelson, made a bipartisan appeal for more funds for disaster relief in anticipation of Irma’s victims. In 2013, however, Rubio was among 36 Republicans who opposed a relief bill for victims of Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey. The opponents also included Texas’ two GOP senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, who are now pleading for more aid for their state in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. As U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican, noted, “You can be a fiscal conservative until it hits you and your community and then you have a different point of view.”
FEMA wouldn’t require as many midyear infusions of cash after disasters — in some years it might not need any — if Congress set a higher, more realistic spending level for the agency that anticipates more extreme and costly weather events such as Harvey, Irma and Sandy. Climate scientists warn such events will become more routine. Allocating more for disaster relief through the regular budget process would force lawmakers to weigh this category of spending against other priorities, instead of just waiting to borrow the money in emergencies.
President Trump’s first budget proposal, submitted in March, would have gone in the opposite direction. It called for cutting more than $800 million from the Disaster Relief Fund and redirecting the funds to other administration priorities, including a border wall with Mexico. In the wake of Harvey and Irma, Congress is not expected to approve this clueless cut or other shortsighted reductions in programs intended to reduce the risk of disasters or speed recovery from them.
Reducing the damage with better planning
No part of government, including FEMA, should be off-limits to reforms that would promote greater efficiency in delivering services and save money for taxpayers over the long haul. Former FEMA chief Craig Fugate, the well-regarded leader of the agency under President Obama, has called for requiring states to pay money up front — essentially a deductible — before they qualify for a presidential disaster declaration, which opens the pipeline for federal aid. Fugate, who also served as Florida’s emergency director under Gov. Jeb Bush, said FEMA could lower a state’s deductible if it had taken steps to reduce its risk to disasters, such as adopting stricter building codes in flood-prone areas. This would create a financial incentive for states to be more pro-active in their emergency planning.
Other reformers, such as Washington, D.C.-based Taxpayers for Common Sense, argue a greater share of aid needs to be directed to helping disaster victims relocate, rather than rebuild in harm’s way. That would lead to fewer victims, less damaged property and lower costs for taxpayers in future disasters.
These are important issues for policymakers to ponder going forward. But the highest priority for them now is to get help to victims of Harvey and Irma — without political brinkmanship, and without delay.