The devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy will drain down the funds remaining in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund and push the National Flood Insurance Program further into debt. With the rapidly approaching federal fiscal cliff, it’s time we had a serious national discussion over the future of these programs.
When large-scale disasters truly overwhelm states, such as with hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, the federal government can and should play a vital role in recovery efforts. The key is, that role must be done as efficiently and effectively as possible.
The real issue for Ohioans is: Should we subsidize the costs of lower-level natural disasters that occur in other states each year?
Ohio is the seventh-largest state, so our federal income taxes fund a larger share of FEMA and the continued bailout of the National Flood Insurance Program. Because Ohio experiences few natural disasters that meet federal standards, our tax dollars end up subsidizing the natural disasters in other states. Specifically, Ohio has had only 46 major FEMA declarations since 1953. That works out to 0.78 declarations per year.
This low number of declarations occurred despite FEMA’s hyperactivity over the past two decades. Since 1993, FEMA has effectively nationalized more and more “small bore” disasters that were historically handled and paid for by states and localities. Disasters such as tornadoes, fires, floods, snowstorms, severe storms and other events have little to no regional or national impact and, therefore, have no justification for federal involvement.
Last year, FEMA issued 242 declarations, a record that surpassed the previous single year record by 85. Each one of those declarations drains the Disaster Relief Fund. The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act mandates that FEMA get involved only when the disaster is of such severity and magnitude that it overwhelms state and local resources. Very few natural disasters that received FEMA declarations since 1993 meet that definition.
To put this in perspective, let’s examine the yearly average of FEMA declarations by presidential term: Ronald Reagan, 28; George H.W. Bush, 43.5; Bill Clinton, 89.5; George W. Bush, 129.6; and Barack Obama, 153. Keep in mind, America has not had a major earthquake in years, and only two hurricanes have made landfall in the past four years.
That five-fold increase in disaster declarations from Reagan to Obama vividly illustrates the rapid nationalization of natural disasters. Outside of the handful of regionally or nationally catastrophic events such as Sandy and Katrina, FEMA declarations have become another pork-barrel tool presidents use to look good and governors seek to shift their disaster costs to other states.
Meanwhile, FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund runs dry, and the National Flood Insurance Program also tips further into red.
As more and more Americans build expensive homes in greater densities along the coasts or in flood plains, the National Flood Insurance Program, as the sole provider of flood insurance, becomes exposed to increasing loss costs. Because the National Flood Insurance Program and state rate caps keep homeowners insurance in those high-risk areas artificially low, the people who live in those places don’t bear the true costs of their decisions.
When flooding occurs, the National Flood Insurance Program bails out those homeowners, thereby allowing many of them to rebuild in the same high-risk areas. Since premiums don’t cover the program’s costs, taxpayers living in safer places end up bailing out that perpetually debt-ridden federal program. Plus, we pay higher insurance costs as insurance companies, constrained by state rate caps, spread the costs of insuring those high-risk areas across the country.
It is time to end the nationalization of routine natural disasters. We must save FEMA and federal resources for events that have a regional or national impact. Ohioans should not be forced to subsidize tornadoes in Oklahoma, floods in Iowa or fires in Texas.
Similarly, homeowners and taxpayers in safer states shouldn’t have to pay higher federal taxes and insurance costs to bail out the National Flood Insurance Program and those people who aren’t paying the true costs of insuring their homes.
Ohioans are losers in the natural-disaster lottery. Other states and their residents shouldn’t be able to gamble with our money.
Matt A. Mayer is a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Columbus Dispatch.