Wall Street Journal's Defense Of Romney's FEMA Comments Misses The Point

The Wall Street Journal obfuscated important facts to defend Mitt Romney's suggestion that states should take a larger role in handling natural disasters than they currently are. But the federal government can only issue a disaster declarations after state governors request federal assistance. Furthermore, states devastated by natural disasters often cannot burden the costs of such disasters on their own.

During a June 2011 Republican presidential primary debate, Romney was asked about whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should be given additional money or whether “we're learning a lesson here that states should take on more of this role.” Romney replied, in part, by saying: “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that's even better.”

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a Wall Street Journal editorial defended Romney's argument, claiming that federal disaster declarations have increased too much in recent decades and arguing that “energetic governors and mayors are best equipped to handle disaster relief”:

Matt Mayer of the Heritage Foundation has found that annual FEMA disaster declarations have multiplied since the Clinton years and have reached a yearly average of 153 under Mr. Obama. That compares to 129.6 under George W. Bush, 89.5 under Mr. Clinton, and only 28 a year under Reagan. Mr. Mayer argues that taxpayers and storm victims would be better served if FEMA devoted itself to helping out in the biggest disasters, such as Sandy, and not dive in at every political request for assistance.


Citizens in the Northeast aren't turning on their TVs, if they have electricity, to hear Mr. Obama opine about subway flooding. They're tuning in to hear Governor Chris Christie talk about the damage to the Jersey shore, Mayor Mike Bloomberg tell them when bus service might resume in New York City, and Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy say when the state's highways might reopen.

Energetic governors and mayors are best equipped to handle disaster relief because they know their cities and neighborhoods far better than the feds ever will, and they know their citizens will hold them accountable. The feds can help with money and perhaps expertise.

But state governors are the very ones telling the federal government that they cannot handle disasters without federal aid. As FEMA's website points out, governors initiate the process of requesting federal disaster aid:

The Stafford Act (§401) requires that: “All requests for a declaration by the President that a major disaster exists shall be made by the Governor of the affected State.” A State also includes the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.  The Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia are also eligible to request a declaration and receive assistance.

The Governor's request is made through the regional FEMA/EPR office. State and Federal officials conduct a preliminary damage assessment (PDA) to estimate the extent of the disaster and its impact on individuals and public facilities. This information is included in the Governor's request to show that the disaster is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the State and the local governments and that Federal assistance is necessary. [emphasis added]

It is unlikely that individual states have the resources to pay for natural disasters on their own given the budget constraints on state governments. As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jay Bookman pointed out in 2011:

Let's start with the Romney's contention that disaster relief is an obligation that the federal government ought to shuck and devolve to the states or even private enterprise. Devolving that duty to the states means it would not get done. The state of Missouri, like most states, is struggling to balance its budget and could not possibly have funded the billion-dollar relief effort launched in the wake of the disaster in Joplin. The same is true of Alabama and the tornadoes that devastated our neighbors to the west in April. A state suffering destruction on such a scale cannot be told to suck it up and pull itself up by its own bootstraps.

Slate's Matt Yglesias has made a similar point:

Disaster relief, I would argue, is a great federal program precisely because of the debt issue.

If a storm damages basic physical infrastructure (power lines, bridges) and imperils human life it would be the height of penny-wise, pound-foolish thinking to suppose that the afflicted area should wait months or years to repair the damage. Ultimately, anyplace is going to go back to robust wealth creation faster if basic stuff gets fixed up faster. But that requires financing by an entity capable of rapidly financing expensive projects--i.e., the federal government. Left to its own devices a storm-ravaged Delaware or Louisiana is going to be squeezed between balanced budget rules and falling sales tax receipts and be forced into an increasing state of dilapidation.

Moreover, there is nothing sinister about the increase in federal disaster declarations. Natural disasters are occurring more frequently now than they were several decades ago, more people are being affected by them, and they are causing more damage. Council on Foreign Relations blogger Patrick Stewart wrote:

[T]he world's rapidly growing cities are increasingly at risk of natural disasters, ranging from catastrophic fires to landslides, massive floods, and tidal waves.  This is alarming, given evidence that such events are on the rise. According to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, “the number of people reported affected by natural disasters” rose astronomically between 1900 and 2011, from a few million early in the twentieth century to a peak of 680 million in 2000 (hovering around 300 million today). To be sure, much of this rise is attributable to evolving reporting standards and a growing global population. But alongside these changes has been a growing global awareness of and unwillingness to tolerate the extreme suffering of “natural” disasters.

Moreover, certain types of disasters seem clearly on the rise. Over the last three decades, during which observation techniques have been “fairly comprehensive and consistent,” reports of major floods have climbed from an average of less than fifty to just below two hundred per year. Incidences of tropical storms have climbed from around ten to roughly fifteen, and the annual total of U.S. tornadoes and global tsunamis has risen significantly. The financial costs have risen even faster. According to Gerhard Berz, former head of Geo Risks at Munich Re, a German re-insurance corporation, “losses from natural disasters have increased eightfold in economic terms during the last four decades. The insured losses have even increased by a factor of fourteen.”