The Proper Federal Role in Natural Disasters

September 1, 2017

Roger Pielke makes good points about climate change and hurricanes in the Wall Street Journal today, but his ideas for federal policy action are off-base.

Pielke proposes that we “enhance federal capacity” for natural disasters and create a National Disaster Review Board. In my 2014 study on FEMA, I argue the opposite—that enlarging the federal role would be counterproductive.

Federalism is supposed to undergird America’s system of handling disasters, particularly natural disasters. State, local, and private organizations should play the dominant role. Looking at American history, many disasters have generated large outpourings of aid by individuals, businesses, and charities, and we see a similar wonderful response to Hurricane Harvey.

Pielke says that the federal government “plays a crucial role in supporting states and local communities to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters.” But the federal role in preparation and recovery is not crucial, as it mainly involves handing out cash. The states have their own cash, and my study describes the disadvantages of pushing costs onto federal taxpayers.

As for disaster response, federal involvement is appropriate when agencies have unique capabilities to offer, such as the Coast Guard’s search and rescue capabilities. But it is mainly state, local, and private entities that own the needed resources and are on the scene to assist in emergencies. The states, for example, employ 1.3 million people in police and fire departments. As for the private sector, the 9/11 Commission report noted, “85 percent of our nation’s critical infrastructure is controlled not by governments but by the private sector, [so] private-sector civilians are likely to be the first responders in any future catastrophes.”

When the states need additional resources after a disaster, they can and do rely on help from other states under mutual aid agreements. Similarly, electric utilities have longstanding agreements with each other to share resources when disaster strikes. Such horizontal support makes more sense than top-down interventions from Washington.

Federal intervention can impede disaster response and rebuilding because of the extra paperwork involved and the added complexity of decisionmaking. A growing federal role may also induce states to neglect their own disaster preparedness because officials assume Uncle Sam will bail them out when disaster hits.

Growing federal intervention has been sadly crowding out state, local, and private roles in handling natural disasters. We should reverse course and only task the federal government with those roles that are unique and truly beyond the capabilities of other entities in society.

For further reading, see “The Federal Emergency Management Agency: Floods, Failures, and Federalism”.


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