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Why Washington Can't Get Out of the Disaster Relief Business

Some conservatives want Washington to stay out of disaster zones, leaving the job to states and localities, along with private insurance. This won't fly politically or practically.

The Crowder family surveys their home destroyed by a tornado on May 7, 2024, in Barnsdall, Oklahoma.
An Oklahoma family looks at their home after it was destroyed by a tornado on May 7.
Brandon Bell/TNS
For one family in suburban Houston, early May was a rerun of a terrible memory from seven years before, when Hurricane Harvey hit. After Harvey’s floodwaters wiped out their home, they rebuilt it, this time on stilts. But now torrential rains hit again, and yet again they had to evacuate, packing family members and pets into their vehicles and racing to higher ground.

After Harvey, officials in some local communities, including Houston, resisted issuing mandatory evacuation orders. They remembered what happened in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina in nearby Louisiana, when the evacuation itself took dozens of lives in what reporters later called a “Mad Max situation.” During the May storms this year, however, local officials were much quicker to order families to leave their homes.

There’s a much bigger story in this turnaround. Big changes in climate are bringing more fierce storms. Fiercer storms are causing more damage. More damage is bringing a heavier government hand and a big reshuffling of responsibility, with more decisions going from individuals to government, with more government power flowing to Washington.

Not everyone supports this shift. The Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025, with its 920-page manual for the next Republican administration, calls for relying more on private insurance and a larger role for state and local governments, instead of dependence on the federal government. The feds have played too big a role “for political reasons,” Project 2025 concludes.

Of course, it’s impossible to separate these political realities from emergency management. Sept. 11 made the searing point that any problem anywhere could become a problem everywhere. Katrina made the point that big disasters can quickly overwhelm the ability of any state or local government to respond. Both accelerated the drift toward nationalization of emergency management over the last quarter of a century.

There certainly is a strong federalism logic behind the Heritage proposal, but it would never fly past the first reporter’s stand-up amid a big natural disaster. More disasters are hitting, more frequently, and they’re causing more damage. When problems happen, everyone — residents and local officials alike — looks to the feds for help.

The 2024 tornado season has already proven to be one of the most active on record. Moreover, “tornado alley” on the Plains and in the Midwest shows signs of sliding eastward, so that more severe storms are hitting areas that had not been as seriously ravaged in the past.

Hurricane seasons are notoriously erratic. But climatologists have noticed a dangerous trend: monster storms that explode in a very short time, making it harder to predict how dangerous they will be at landfall, and therefore to know what guidance to give residents. Last year, the wind speed of Hurricane Otis increased by 115 mph in less than a day.

Then there are the wildfires that have savaged both the West and the central parts of the country. Eight of the 10 largest wildfires in California history have occurred since 2017. In Texas, the state’s largest wildfire broke out just this past February. Meanwhile, the Northeast, Pacific Northwest and northern Great Plains have seen more big floods, even though flooding has diminished in the Rockies and in the Southwest.

Virtually every part of the country is seeing more and larger emergency events, on a truly historic scale. And this is bringing a pair of big implications.

First, big events can quickly swamp the capacity of smaller governments, so these governments are turning more quickly to the federal government for help. As a matter of basic philosophy, it might make sense to put the states at the center of the response universe. As a practical matter, however, states don’t have the same rapid-response capacity that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has honed over the last generation, and they certainly don’t have the same deep pockets as the federal government.

Second, more mandates have followed federal aid. The feds are now requiring everyone who has had property damaged in a flood disaster within a high-risk flood area to buy insurance, either from a private company or from the federal National Flood Insurance Program. In Houston, however, only 25 percent of those living in a flood plain have insurance. Outside the areas where insurance is required, there’s often a surprising amount of flood damage. In fact, more than a quarter of all claims for the National Flood Insurance Program come from people outside designated high-risk flood areas, and they account for a third of all disaster assistance. Families suffering serious damage inevitably look to the feds to fill the gap.

Some property owners have gotten wiped out multiple times. One Mississippi home flooded 34 times in 32 years. The $69,000 property received $663,000 in federal payments. FEMA has created a “severe repetitive loss” program for such properties, to allow state and local governments to buy them out and convert them to open space. It’s a voluntary program — but anyone with repetitive losses who doesn’t volunteer will suffer a 50 percent increase in their flood insurance rates.

Shortly after tornados swept through Oklahoma earlier this month, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt told CNN that “when there’s a disaster and there’s people in need, we’re all Americans.” Pointing to FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, a Democratic appointee, he said, “These are federal agencies that we have to work with regardless of who’s in the White House.”

Ideology and philosophy melt away in the face of disasters. Increasingly, what’s replacing them is a stronger role for Washington. Tighter rules and stronger governmental controls are only going to increase.
Donald F. Kettl is professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He is the co-author with William D. Eggers of Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems.
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