Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Disaster Relief--Who should be the beneficiaries?

Perhaps the question in the title of this post should seem simple to answer? Who qualifies for federal disaster relief and what is its basic design?

The first question first! Because a declaration by the President is purely discretionary and their is no waiver of sovereign immunity in the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, the system is largely immune with some exceptions from judicial review. The basic design is a federal grant program with grants going to the STATES and their local governments and others being sub-grantees. Certain missions beyond STATE and their local government capability become mission assigned to other federal departments and agencies and these are paid for out of the DRF [Disaster Relief Fund]!

The statutory design is that property insured or otherwise protected finanically will not receive federal disaster monies. This design is largely a failure because if FEMA kept good statistics and it does not, duplication of benefits would be shown as not significantly reducing outlays. Even the NFIP [National Flood Insurance Program] was designed to reduce disaster outlays. It also has failed to do that. The lure of free disaster relief to the political class is just too strong.

And of course the public assistance, and individual assistance categories make no real sense in the modern age and with a statutory bias in favor of restoration rather than resilience most of repaired or restored disaster properties will just be damaged again in the next cycle. It is only the very inadquate statistics of the NFIP that has revealed 30% or more of all NFIP paid claims going to the same structures, but the disaster program has a high degree of repetitive loss, largely unrealed due to inadquate records.

That said, with the deterioration of the economics of the average US citizen or resident the importance of federal disaster relief has grown. President William Jefferson Clinton following rejection of an economic stimulus program by Congress after his first election was rewarded by MOTHER NATURE. After 12 weeks of warning the large area of the UPPER MISSISSIPPI River and Missouri also had dramatic floods. This allowed federal disaster relief to become a direct and significant economic stimulus to that part of the country. It also revealed that the levee system started during the depression and significantly built with depression dollars and wage levels was pretty much a failure at protecting the cities, villages, and hamlets that historically developed because of the transportation facilitated by Ole Man River.

FEMA is not designed or equipped as a Social Service organization. Even at the highest levels of the agency few executives have a background in dealing with the large portion of the population that has nothing before the disaster and nothing afterwards. Thus, the disaster relief program is largely if not intentionally designed and delivered in a manner to support those who before the disaster had assets and not those who did not. This creates extremely odd distorions in how FEMA management perceives its role. And certainly since Katrina the old rivalry between the National Security STATE and its doyens and advocates and the domestic natural disaster scene has not only thrived but been largely won by the latter groups.

I have long advocated that the statuory scheme which mandates federal disaster relief as supplemental to STATE and their local governments capabilities just gives an incentive against real preparedness. That means disaster reform will now be driven largely by failed STATE and their LOCAL Governments efforts to fund on a largely regressive property tax. See previous post. FEWER and FEWER Americans have ownership of land or improved real estate as part of their wealth. The problem of course is that many who suffer disasters live in areas that are on a relatively long term basis, certainly longer than one human life, under constant threat.

Federal programs are never designed for efficiency or effectiveness but are just political solutions usally reactive to some perceived problem or real problem. Thus they are political in the ultimate sense. Get the problem away from US for the moment so that we can deal with other issues. Of course it is exactly this short term thinking in Congress and the Executive Branch that has now resulted in an accumulation of long term problems that need to be addressed.

I would therefore recommend the following: First split the disaster program into pieces. Those persons with little before the disaster would receive structured assistance, structured to try and increase their future resilience from disasters. Second, study and beefing up of the duplication of benefits and State Self-Insurance aspects of the current disaster program. Third, use block grants to the states for public assistance premised on their being used to promote resilience not restoration or reconstrution of an existing problem only to see it lost in time to the next disaster. And finally strict enforcement of the NFIP purchase requirement and administration of that requirement by persons who also have the duplication of benefits role and self-insurance role in the disaster program.

Only time will tell of course as to whether these measures will be enough. And too bad the decennial census did not have disaster questions and insurance questions on it. STATES and their local governments really need to conduct their own inquiries as to how many of their citizens have recieved federal disaster relief or a paid claim under the NFIP. Eyes might get opened at these results.

The bottom line is that at least a two tiered disaster program must be developed and developed fast or more Katrina's are in store.