National Emergency Assistance: A Bipartisan Issue

The heartbreaking images from Texas prompt Americans into renewed awareness about what our government should and should not be responsible for in emergency assistance. With a strong tradition of giving, many aid organizations, most notably the Red Cross, are appropriate recipients of individual contributions to aid those affected by events such as Harvey. But the government should and must play a role as well.  How should we assess the appropriate quality of that help?

A little history helps us understand the situation. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, is among the more recent of federal agencies. President Carter created it by executive order in 1978 with the plan to bring together a number of other federal administrations such as fire, insurance, and disaster recovery.  In 2003, after the events of September 11 and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA was brought in under it.

Hurricane Katrina tested FEMA and found it failing. Not only was leadership there and under the Bush Administration wanting, its material resources, its ability to organize other state and local agencies were far below the necessary standards of a Category 4 hurricane and the destruction that it brought.  FEMA leadership and responsiveness improved under the Obama Administration but it was not tested again so severely until these recent events in Texas.

Between Katrina and Harvey, I have a personal report to describe the quiet steps that FEMA took to improve.  I have a rental home in Milo, New York, near Penn Yan, and on the lake.  When I purchased it in 2003, flood insurance was not a requirement for the mortgage.  About six years ago or so, when the mortgage interest rates went down, I remortgaged it and learned that flood insurance was now a required part of the process.  A little researched revealed what was behind the shift: the insurance industry pushed the pen, so to speak, on this new requirement.  Not only that, it was excessively expensive to get.  

I, together with so many others, was furious. How did my house suddenly find itself on the “flood zone” FEMA map?  A quick look at the Finger Lakes region revisions of those maps from Katrina to Harvey looked as if someone at FEMA had taken a magic marker to a road map of the area and filled in about a mile space around each of the Finger Lakes.  That road map held no relationship to a topographical survey of whether anyone was high or low to the lake.  

I also remember talking with the bank and then the insurance broker who explained that even with this insurance, it did not cover the basement but would only take effect if the water level reached up to the level of the first floor of the house.  I practically screamed into the phone!  “This would be a 10,000-year event in the Finger Lakes!  If it were to occur, you and I would not be on the phone talking about an adjustment!”  Of course, that is the point. The insurance industry gets all kind of new money by tying their expensive insurance to bank mortgages. They pushed the FEMA pen to create a greater swath of people in their net.  And yet, when it comes to disasters such as the one in Texas, where are they to help out?

Republicans and Democrats have a lot to do to reform FEMA and the industries that national disasters such as this one begets on good people from every walk of life.  Currently, FEMA is over 25 billion dollars in debt. It requires a serious administrative overhaul. But that overhaul is not, nor will ever be enough. The insurance industry makes out like bandits as a result of events like this one. They use the trauma that these awful events create to soak more money out of consumers and keep agencies such as FEMA responsive to their profit wants instead of the basic needs of people affected by it.  

Time for this scam to stop. Stop the insurance industry from taking advantage of people who need the help most.  And time to start.  Let’s start with a bipartisan effort to make sense out of our nation’s emergency preparedness and ability to help people when they need it the most.