FEMA’s Wasteful “Disaster Socialism”

In the Washington Examiner, Shikha Dalmia of the Reason Foundation notes that FEMA has been as slow after Superstorm Sandy as it was after Hurricane Katrina — and that when it finally provides aid to residents of affected regions, it will be providing not life-sustaining aid, but loans, handouts and welfare benefits, some of which will flow to people who don’t even legally qualify for them. People have this weird idea that FEMA helps people in the 48-hours after a natural disaster. It doesn’t. Instead, it lets state and local governments take care of their people in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, and then writes checks to residents of affected areas later on. Dalmia calls it “disaster socialism.” As she notes,

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.

But if you think FEMA’s inability to provide rapid relief subverts the core reason for its existence, think again. A few days after [a New York Times editorial that falsely claimed that FEMA provides rapid relief], 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.

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. . .

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.

Earlier, The New York Times, in a characteristically uninformed editorial, had argued that without FEMA, local and state authorities wouldn’t be able to coordinate where “rescuers should go, where drinking water should be shipped, and how to assist hospitals that have to evacuate.” FEMA, it argued, had been restored by the Obama administration so that it could perform that function, after supposedly having been gutted by George Bush due to his allegedly anti-government philosophy (never mind that Bush, far from being anti-government, had increased government spending both in absolute terms and as a percentage of the economy, and increased non-defense discretionary spending in general, and spending on FEMA in particular). In reality, FEMA remains much the same under Obama as it was under Bush. (It is state and local governments that have always managed most rescues, like state National Guard units, or the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, which saved thousands of people after Hurricane Katrina, although the Coast Guard also helped.)

To try to “prove the virtue of federal intervention,” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman cited “the scene in flooded Hoboken, with the National Guard moving in the day after the storm struck to deliver food and water and rescue stranded residents.” But as Adam Freedman notes, “There’s just one problem: the National Guard is a unit of state government, not the federal government. Indeed, it is the successor to the state militias. Krugman might have taken a moment to consult the Pentagon’s own website discussing post-Sandy relief: “The National Guard takes its missions from the governor, and they’re supporting the first responders,” reports the DoD, quoting Army General Frank Grass. Governor Christie called up the New Jersey Guard; Governor Cuomo, the New York Guard. . .  it is preposterous to think that such cooperation would not have occurred without Uncle Sam.”