Who Owns Weather, the Feds or the States?

Lawmakers agree on the need to improve disaster relief, but how is more complicated.

National Journal
Sophie Novack
Feb. 25, 2014, 3:08 a.m.

Who is ul­ti­mately re­spons­ible for dis­aster re­lief?

For the gov­ernors tasked with hold­ing their states to­geth­er amid nat­ur­al dis­asters, the de­bate over emer­gency re­sponse is not a par­tis­an struggle — it’s about strik­ing the right bal­ance between fed­er­al and loc­al re­spons­ib­il­ity.

“There is no such thing as a Re­pub­lic­an or Demo­crat­ic re­sponse to a dis­aster,” Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said at a Na­tion­al Journ­al State of the States event Monday. “You have to bring all re­sources to bear at that mo­ment. That’s when people really need the gov­ern­ment.”

Quinn, a Demo­crat, has made dis­aster re­lief and pre­pared­ness a ma­jor part of his work as gov­ernor, and he be­lieves in the im­port­ance of every state in­vest­ing in pre­pared­ness and re­cov­ery to pro­tect against severe weath­er. He signed the Illinois Jobs Now! pro­gram five years ago, which in­cludes ma­jor in­vest­ment in sus­tain­able in­fra­struc­ture for this reas­on.

Quinn, however, is also a strong ad­voc­ate of fed­er­al in­volve­ment in bat­tling nat­ur­al dis­asters. He is push­ing for a change to what he says are un­fair reg­u­la­tions from the Fed­er­al Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency that de­term­ine wheth­er a par­tic­u­lar area gets fed­er­al aid for dis­aster re­lief. Cur­rently linked to pop­u­la­tion, this reg­u­la­tion dis­ad­vant­ages Illinois, which has the densely pop­u­lated metro area of Chica­go but many emp­ti­er rur­al areas around it, Quinn ar­gues.

Yet while Quinn aims to bal­ance loc­al and fed­er­al in­volve­ment, some ex­perts main­tain that states are too de­pend­ent on fed­er­al aid when it comes to nat­ur­al-dis­aster re­lief.

“There were 95 de­clar­a­tions out of FEMA in 2013, and it was the first time in 16 years when there were less than 100,” says Matt May­er, chief op­er­at­ing of­ficer of the Liberty Found­a­tion of Amer­ica and a mem­ber of the pan­el at Monday’s event. He says the fed­er­al share of dis­aster re­lief has in­creased from 5 per­cent for Hur­ricane Di­ane in 1955 to 50 per­cent for Hur­ricane Kat­rina, to 80 per­cent to Su­per­storm Sandy. “The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is broke; it doesn’t have a lot of money [for dis­aster re­lief].”

May­er and oth­er pan­el­ists ar­gue that states ought to have more re­spons­ib­il­ity for cov­er­ing smal­ler re­lief ef­forts. Fed­er­al fund­ing could be used to in­centiv­ize states to in­vest in build­ing and pre­pared­ness so that they aren’t re­ly­ing so much on the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment after dis­aster strikes.

“They’re all try­ing put their hands out in­stead [of] up,” May­er says. “This is not a Re­pub­lic­an or Demo­crat­ic is­sue — Re­pub­lic­ans are put­ting out their hands too.”

Find­ing the bal­ance between loc­al and fed­er­al in­volve­ment can be a chal­lenge even for FEMA. “I’m not sure it’s an in­cent­ive is­sue, so much as a co­ordin­a­tion is­sue some­times,” says Timothy Man­ning, deputy ad­min­is­trat­or of the fed­er­al agency. While severe weath­er may re­quire fed­er­al re­lief funds, Man­ning says the vast ma­jor­ity of dis­asters nev­er ex­ceed the ca­pa­city of state gov­ern­ments.