In a nearly perfect storm this past week Ron Paul again slammed FEMA, the Administrator of FEMA, Craig Fugate, released a statement saying that the agency is getting low on funds, and media hype about Hurricane Irene and questions about FEMA funding all played to raise concerns about the agency and its ability to respond to fever level among some in the public over the past few days.
On Sunday, August 28, 2011, Congressman Ron Paul, R-Texas, again defended his position that FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) should be abolished. His comments came in a Fox News Sunday interview, after FEMA administrator Craig Fugate’s interview on the same show. It was Paul’s latest restatement of his FEMA public position that goes back to at least May 2011 in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer after the Alabama tornadoes and one week before the Joplin Tornadoes.
Mr. Paul’s complaints seemed more focused on “FEMA” as the government-backed flood insurance program than on its individual assistance program. Mr. Paul’s congressional district is on the Gulf Coast and includes Galveston. It is common that some residents of the Gulf Coast call the FEMA flood insurance program simply “FEMA” most likely due to the frequent FEMA television commercials advertising the insurance program. Rep. Candice Miller, R- Michigan, has filed HR435, The National Flood Insurance Program Termination Act, which was assigned to Finance and Judiciary committees on January 25, 2011 (most bills never make it out of committee).
Meanwhile, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has appeared on many national news broadcasts over the past days to reassure the public and the states that FEMA stands ready and capable of fulfilling its emergency response roles even though its current reserves stand at about $800 million. That message along with the “Immediate Needs Funding” strategy immediately led to more media hype regarding FEMA’s ability to function. These incidents seem to be not purposeful overstatement but simply some media misunderstanding of FEMA’s various roles and what is likely over-reaction by representatives of other hard-hit areas such as Joplin. This apparently has led to FEMA telephone lines being hit with questions regarding its ability to help with the present emergencies.
In a statement released Monday, August 29, 2011, Rachel Racusen, FEMA’s Director of Public Affairs, which makes it clear that its “immediate needs funding” strategy that has been implemented is routine when reserve funding goes below a certain level will have no impact whatsoever on immediate needs. “Under Immediate Needs Funding Current or future disaster survivors will continue to receive their individual assistance payments from FEMA to help replace or repair damages to property or cover other personal losses. This is true for disaster survivors in Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, and all other states recently impacted by tornadoes or flooding.
States will be continue to receive funding reimbursement for debris removal, emergency protective and response measures, and assistance to help with housing missions, mission assignments, and other critical needs. Longer-term recovery projects for open disasters that had already been submitted by states will continue to receive funding. The only projects that will temporarily be impacted are longer-term recovery projects and hazard mitigation projects that were not already in our system. To be clear – funding will not be eliminated for any of these projects, but merely put on hold until additional appropriations are made available.”
According to the Congressional Research Service, FEMA’s responsibilities are widely varied. These roles might be considered several “business units.”
∙ One “business unit” is the FEMA National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) that offers flood insurance to homeowners. This program is run by the government and charges homeowners premiums and then covers flood damages much like regular commercial insurance would if it were available. That FEMA insurance program’s deficit has recently climbed to almost $20 billion (with a “b”) and several members of congress have been calling for either substantially raising premiums or terminating the program.
∙ Another “business unit” would be FEMA’s emergency assistance to state governments. This assistance comes only after presidential authorization for the emergency situation at hand. Under this program, as referenced by Texas Governor Rick Perry in his much publicized plea for federal help regarding the recent Texas wildfires, the federal government would pay up to 75% of emergency costs with the state paying the remaining 25%. This disaster declaration type does not include assistance for individuals, it only reimburses the states, which then can send help to the local cities and towns.
∙ A third “business unit” would be FEMA’s Individual Assistance Program (IA). Individual Assistance is available to anyone who qualifies as specified in the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, PL 100-707, which created FEMA. According to the Congressional Research Service summary report of March 14, 2011, Under this program, grants can be provided that can “assist disaster victims whose needs cannot be met through other forms of assistance, such as insurance or other federal programs. Program funds have a wide range of eligible uses, including temporary housing, limited housing repair or replacement, and uninsured medical, dental, or other personal needs.” This program requires a presidential declaration to be implemented and inspectors physically visit each applicant to verify identity and eligibility and damages. IA is not intended to restore damage as insurance would, but it is specifically stated as being for immediate needs and helping individuals and families get back on their feet. FEMA is completely transparent with its data regarding grants and the totals are documented on its web site, FEMA.GOV.
There are other areas of activity that FEMA undertakes and a brief and easy-to-understand summary of those can be obtained from the Congressional Research Service web site http://assets.opencrs.com/rpts/RL31734_20110314.pdf. Some of those other activities which include long-term mitigation and improvement projects are the programs that have been temporarily suspended, not canceled, in order to make the best short-term use of available FEMA funding.
So, is FEMA in trouble? Feeling on the street seems to be that FEMA is probably in as much trouble as the Internal Revenue Service but the FEMA flood insurance program just well may be in trouble as budgets get tighter and politicians relate that program more and more to an example of “nationalized insurance gone bad”. Even if the flood insurance program survives, the flood insurance premiums will simply have to be increased at some point. The current almost $20 Billion deficit is increasing and calls to raise premiums have increased. But, as with all politics and government-owned businesses, an equal number of passionate calls to hold the line on premium increases has surfaced. And so, it is “business” (or politics) as usual. The Republican-led House has approved $3.6 billion in FEMA funding, but the legislation has stalled in the Senate, where Democrats oppose the cuts to other programs and the public interest seems to be held hostage while the politicians bicker yet again.