If you read through Article I, Section VIII, of the Constitution, it says nothing about Congress having the power to subsidize or pay for disaster relief.
But I realize very few people care about the Constitution, so I’m going to make a utilitarian argument against Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other forms of federal involvement in natural disasters.
Best of all, I don’t really need to do any heavy lifting. Someone else already has put together a very strong indictment, using Dauphin Island in Alabama as a case study.
Here are some excerpts from a great bit of reporting and analysis in the Austin Statesman, except in the second sentence I would replace “inertia” with “stupidity.”
Even in the off season, the pastel beach houses lining a skinny strip of sand here are a testament to the good life. They are also a monument to the generosity, and perhaps to the inertia, of the federal government… The western end of this Gulf Coast island has proved to be one of the most hazardous places in the country for waterfront property. Since 1979, nearly a dozen hurricanes and large storms have rolled in and knocked down houses, chewed up sewers and water pipes and hurled sand onto the roads. Yet time and again, checks from Washington have allowed the town to put itself back together. Across the nation, tens of billions of tax dollars have been spent on subsidizing coastal reconstruction in the aftermath of storms, usually with little consideration of whether it actually makes sense to keep rebuilding in disaster-prone areas. If history is any guide, a large fraction of the federal money allotted to New York, New Jersey and other states recovering from Hurricane Sandy — an amount that could exceed $30 billion — will be used the same way. Tax money will go toward putting things back as they were, essentially duplicating the vulnerability laid bare by the hurricane. …Like many other beachfront towns, [Dauphin Island] has benefited from the Stafford Act, a federal law that taps the U.S. Treasury for 75 percent or more of the cost of fixing storm-damaged infrastructure, like roads and utilities. At least $80 million, adjusted for inflation, has gone into patching up this one island since 1979 — more than $60,000 for every permanent resident. That does not include payments of $72 million to homeowners from the highly subsidized federal flood insurance program.
Conservatives often complain about welfare programs that pay single mothers to have children out of wedlock. That’s a legitimate complaint since the welfare state has failed both poor people and taxpayers. But they should apply the same analysis and apply even more moral outrage to handouts that encourage rich people to keep rebuilding in disaster-prone areas.
And there’s no question that federal handouts and giveaways are a driving force. You also won’t be surprised that one of America’s worst Presidents also has a role in this story.
Dauphin Island is a case study in the way the federal subsidies have enabled repetitive risk taking. Orrin Pilkey, an emeritus professor at Duke University who is renowned for his research in coastal zones, described the situation there as a “scandal.” The island, four miles off the Alabama coast, was for centuries the site of a small fishing and farming village reachable only by boat. But in the 1950s, the Chamber of Commerce in nearby Mobile decided to link it to the mainland by bridge and sell lots for vacation homes. Then Hurricane Frederic struck in 1979, ravaging the island and destroying the bridge. President Jimmy Carter flew over to inspect the damage. Rex Rainer, the Alabama highway director at the time, recalled several years later that the president “told us to build everything back just like it was and send him the bill.” With $33 million of federal money, local leaders built a fancier, higher bridge that encouraged more development in the 1980s. Much of that construction occurred on the island’s western end, a long, narrow sand bar sitting only a few feet above the Gulf of Mexico. “You can always look back and say, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t have done that,’ ” said Mayor Jeff Collier, who noted that many of the decisions were made before he took office more than a decade ago. “But we can’t turn the clock back.”
I have just one message for Mayor Collier. I don’t care about your damn clock. Your people should be free to rebuild, but don’t ask me to pay for it.
We do have a tiny bit of good news to report, thanks to libertarians and some of their allies.
A coalition in Washington called SmarterSafer.org, made up of environmentalists, libertarians and budget watchdogs, contends that the subsidies have essentially become a destructive, unaffordable entitlement. …This argument might be gaining some traction. Earlier this year, Congress passed changes to the federal flood insurance program that are supposed to raise historically low premiums and reduce homeowner incentives for rebuilding in the most hazardous areas.
But we need to do more than get rid of federal flood insurance subsidies.
Less widely known about than flood insurance are the subsidies from the Stafford Act, the federal law governing the response to emergencies like hurricanes, wildfires and tornadoes. It kicks in when the president declares a federal disaster that exceeds the response capacity of state and local governments. Experts say the law is at least as important as the flood program in motivating reconstruction after storms. In the same way flood insurance shields families from the financial consequences of rebuilding in risky areas, the Stafford Act shields local and state governments from the full implications of their decisions on land use. Under the law, the federal government committed more than $80 billion to disaster recovery from 2004 to 2011, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office. While billions of dollars went to relieve immediate suffering, including cash payments to families left homeless by storms, nearly half of the money was spent helping state and local governments clean and restore damaged areas and rebuild infrastructure.
Finally, I can’t resist sharing this one last excerpt from the story.
People here have formed strong emotional attachments to their island. “There’s a lot of wildlife and a lot of bird life, and it’s just a great place to relax,” said Jay Minus, a lawyer in Mobile who owns two homes on the western end. “You can sit on the porch and watch the dolphins swim past your house.”
Gee, I’m overjoyed that Mr. Minus has a nice view of dolphins. But it strikes me as very perverse that ordinary taxpayers around America are getting raped so this representative of the top 1 percent can enjoy nice views.
This is obviously a perfect example of where my ethical bleeding heart rule should apply.
So what’s the answer? Simple, end the federal government’s role, including getting rid of FEMA. Shikha Dalmia of the Reason Foundation explains why in the Washington Examiner.
A New York Times editorial declared that the impending storm proved that the country needs FEMA-style “Big Government” solutions more than ever. Salon, New Republic and other liberal outfits heartily agreed. Why do liberals love FEMA so much? Certainly not for its glorious track record. Rather, FEMA has been a great vehicle for expanding the welfare state. …So how did the new and improved FEMA perform post-Sandy, a storm for which it had lots of advance warning? Not so well. It didn’t set up its first relief center until four days after Sandy hit — only to run out of drinking water on the same day. It couldn’t put sufficient boots on the ground to protect Queens residents from roving looters. The Red Cross — on whom FEMA depends for delivering basic goods — left Staten Island stranded for nearly a week, prompting borough President Jim Molinaro to fume that America was not a Third World country. But FEMA’s most egregious gaffe was that it arranged for 24 million gallons of free gas for Sandy’s victims, but most of them couldn’t lay their hands on it.
What’s most amazing is that FEMA doesn’t even play a role in emergency response, even though the politicians and bureaucrats always imply that the Agency exists to be a rapid-relief “first responder.”
But if you think FEMA’s inability to provide rapid relief subverts the core reason for its existence, think again. A few days after the Times’ valentine, FEMA head W. Craig Fugate told the newspaper that the agency’s rapid response role is really a fallacy. “The general public assumes we are part of the response team that will be there the first couple of days,” he said. But it is really designed to deal with disasters several days after the fact. How does FEMA do that? By indiscriminately writing checks — a task at which it evidently excels.
Yes, we finally find something FEMA does with considerable skill. It can waste money.
FEMA administrator Elizabeth Zimmerman testified before Congress last year that between 2005 and 2009, 14.5 percent of the agency’s $10 billion-plus disaster aid budget was handed to people who didn’t qualify. The agency tried to get 154,000 of these people to return the money (on average, each had received about $5,000), but they filed a class action lawsuit forcing FEMA to pay them a multimillion settlement. And it forgave the debt of every one with an income below $90,000. …The bigger problem is not with who gets FEMA money, but why. Less than a sixth of Alabama’s $566 million allotment after Katrina financed legitimate government functions such as debris removal, repairing damaged infrastructure and restoring public utilities. The rest was all handouts: food stamps, subsidies for trailer homes and low-interest loans for small businesses. The FEMA website is already advertising goodies for Sandy victims, including 26 weeks of unemployment benefits and up to $200,000 worth of low-interest loans for home repairs not covered by insurance. In addition, it wants to hand out $2 million loans to small businesses and nonprofits (of all sizes) experiencing “cash flow problems.” Farmers and ranchers could likewise qualify for $500,000 in loans to cover production and property losses. Anyone in Sandy’s path can latch on to the FEMA teat. This is not disaster relief but disaster socialism. It is one thing for the government to provide emergency housing, health care and food; it is quite another to compensate victims for every loss. If people knocked down by a storm deserve such federal largesse, why not open the coffers to anyone who suffers a car crash, a death in the family or a broken heart?
Or what if your house burns down? We instinctively know it would be stupid for the government to pay people to rebuild their houses after a fire because then they’ll decide it no longer makes sense to be responsible.
So why, then, does it make sense to subsidize irresponsibility on a broader scale? Particularly when it encourages people to make decisions that could place their lives in danger.
The bottom line is that the federal government shouldn’t take over roles that are better handled by the private sector (such as market-priced homeowner’s insurance) or state and local government (such as emergency response and infrastructure repair and maintenance).
FEMA does more harm than good. It encourages passivity on the part of both people in the private sector and state and local government officials. It’s damaging to the national character when people learn an entitlement mentality and sit around waiting for the federal government to give them freebies.
And how can anyone forget the spectacular incompetence of Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin during and after Katrina in 2005. Both of them seemed to think it was appropriate to curl up in fetal positions and let Uncle Sam do their jobs.
P.S. I can think of two exceptions to the notion that there should be no federal involvement in disaster relief. First, Washington has a legitimate role in disasters resulting from foreign attack. So some sort of involvement after the 9-11 attacks was appropriate. Second, even a curmudgeon like me wouldn’t get bent out of shape about short-run emergency response. FEMA obviously doesn’t do that, so I’m thinking hypothetically. Perhaps if a hurricane hit a community and a nearby military base had heavy equipment that could help with the immediate clean-up.