Thursday, December 9, 2010

Followup to December 7th post--Who are the beneficiaries of federal disaster relief?

My colleague Claire Rubin sent me a copy of a comment posted on the Recovery Diva blog and asked me to answer it. It was posted on her cross-reference to my blog and blog post on disaster assistance.

Here is the comment:

"It would be interesting to see the writer follow up with his recommendation and address how implementation could be achieved.

Some of the issues that jump out at me right up front is the desire to assist those with less. How would you provide an equitable program to those who are socially vulnerable verses [sic] those who are not, considering many disaster survivors are victims based on location verses social or economical status. Additionally how do you address those whose status change[s] based on the event and the new ramifications upon the population?

I am always apprehensive of the comment of “study and beefing up” used in the same sentence. Studies in their purest form either describe or explain a situation using generalization which can be replicated. Researcher study, recovery practioners use the information to create change but must weigh the idiosyncratic elements involved in every situation to render a solution.

By beefing up the duplication of benefits do you mean allowing more duplication or establishing stricter guidelines to identify more frequent occurrences of duplication and therefore take corrective action to minimize the occurrences?

It truly would be interesting for the state and local governments to ask FEMA to divulge statistical information about disaster victims. Most requests are denied because of the federal government’s requirement to protect client information.

By two tiered system I can only interpret that to mean you desire a two tiered Individual Assistance Program verses the current three program system of Individual Assistance, Public Assistance, and Mitigation system, which can be activated by the President during a federally declared disaster?"

Well these are great questions and will try to be somewhat comprehensive in my response. Perhaps of interest is that I received several comments directly at one of my e-mail addresses focusing on the following sentences in my blog post.
"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."

I am assuming that the most basic inquiry of the Recovery Diva blog commentator also focuses on this issue.

So here goes. First always remember that the federal disaster legislation, not just the Stafford Act, is almost deliberatly designed to confuse and obfuscate the underlying issues. Ever since discrimatory actions by STATE and their Local governments burdened the Hurricane Camille recovery in 1969, even during its Tropical Storm phase, the enforcement of equal protection and due process has been an underlying concern for those administering and receiving disaster relief or participating in the process. The fact that FEMA's focus on evacuation as a Protective Action never addressed the transportation dependent, nor did the STATEs and their local governments, is a leading example as known from Hurricane Katrina. Oddly of course evacuation of Manhattan for the transportation dependent is a leading example of non-feasance, and misfeasance but probably not malfeasance by all the levels of government involved. It would be hard to argue lack of financial resources for the transportation dependent in NYC. Some surely but some not so. My point though is that the disaster legislation is not currently designed to promote crisis management, disaster respone or disaster recovery. And it certainly does not focus on those without food or shelter or basic medical care prior to the incident or event. Why?

Basically the administration of disaster relief in FEMA and its predecessor organizations was and is viewed as a public works program, not based on science, engineering study or even any theory other than expenditure of public funds to replace the built environment predisaster. Deceased Senator William Proxmire if alive would have given it his Golden Fleece award as the Governments ATM. What is unfair about that view is that at least with federal disaster relief the normal opacity of federal programs, functions and activities is somewhat clearer to the average recipient. Either he/she gets assistance or does not. Same for the STATES and their local governments.
So the first thing to do is not the only thing but would be best. Restructure the legislation into a technical assistance chapter, a financial assistance chapter, a chapter dealing with STATE and their local governments inability or unwillingness to operate post event. See for example, EO 12657 which purports to deal with this problem in response to a real-world core melt nuclear power plant accident. A fourth chapter would be dedicated to dealing with pre-disaster levels of inadequate financial resource, medical care, food and housing. The federal FOOD STAMP program became law because 1/3 of all men reporting to the draft for entry into the Armed Services in 1940-41-42 were being rejected for malnutrion. So sometimes the labels and jurisdictions of Congressional committees get in the way. Another problem with the public works mentality is rebuild in the same hazardous zone. So all the mitigation programs, functions and activities should be in another chapter.

Underlying all of this effort is the fact that so much discretion is placed in the President of the US in the various pieces of enacted disaster legislation is that the above would make things easier but are not required. In fact what often occurs post-disaster is that FEMA and the STATES argue over cost shares and other financial aspects even while people suffer. Thus, in the past on this blog I have recommended across the board 100% federal funding for the first 30 or 60 days so that lives and property are not subject to bureacratic and financial debates.

Because it is the President's disaster relief program to date only President William Jefferson Clinton was willing to use the disaster program as a replacement for otherwise Congressionally denied economic stimulus. This led to its own problems, including raising expectations and undermining mitigation and creating what the insurance business call "moral hazard"!

Since a disaster incident or event is not just a "local event" when aggravated over time by repetition and failure to mitigate, it does represent a new "opportunity" to determine whether STATES and their local governments have through ignorance or intent allowed a situation to exist that could be modified post event. The problem is of course is that neither FEMA, its contractors, its leadership or staff is really organized to take advantage of the opportunity to be a change agent. Part of this is because FEMA is NOT a learning organization and often when the so-called rubber meets the road its programs are operated on staffer deep and thus the underfunded understaffed FEMA has to desperately hope others will be making wise decisions post-incident or event. This rarely happens. One example I will detail. At one time FEMA relied on HHS for Certificates of Need to determine whether hospitals would be replaced or reconstructed. That changed under Director Witt who personnally directed massive aid and reconstruction for numerous old and new hospitals. The problem of course is that large consolidated hospitals like Charity Hospital in NOLA no longer make sense. Instead a system of smaller more friendly in size and location medical service outlets make sense with more skilled facilities accessible through severe trauma operations. And of cours NGO's just don't do medical care in the US disaster system. ARC pulled out of this function after the death of many doctors and nurses in the 1918 epidemic.

So here are more specific examples of what might be done!

The Director of FEMA or Secretary HHS should ask the President or Director of OMB to task all Executive Branch agencies to identify generic "resilience" issues that might well be aggravated should the most likely hazard strike the
nations cities and counties and STATES and of course the same for the vulnerablility of federal assets. The military has invested over $30 B in what they call force protection since 9/11/01 and perhaps the civil sector could learn from that effort. Critical infrastructure protection is largely left to the federal government to sort out, except for regulated industries where seldom do the regulators worry about resilience.

With this data in hand, and note that there still is a remarkable concentration of poverty, lack of education (FEMA through Dept of ED builds a lot of schools--over 400 in Northridge were repaired or replaced--and STANFORD U got new graduate housing and a new UNDERGRAD library out of that same disaster), lack of food, lack of medical care has always been faced with an aggrevated situation where this has occurred. Aggravated of course by the disaster. So is this FEMA's problem to fix or someone elses? That is why the always permanent question for FEMA is it the SAFTEY NET if all other programs, functions, and activities have failed to make the disaster zone resilient prior to the disaster? Perhaps it is time for the President and Congress to answer this question. This will make possible the redesign of FEMA's disaster programs to deal with the answer whatever it is!

Short of that it is almost impossible to do the disaster relief redesign effort imbedded in my earlier post and the wonderful comment posted to the Recovery Diva. And thanks Claire for forwading the question and hoping this starts to answer a critical inquiry that should receive a more thoughful and knowledgeable answer than mine.

As to duplication of benefits this is rarely an issue with those without medical care, housing, or food prior to the incident or event. It is a problem in that systems and processes in FEMA largely do not exist to police this waste, fraud, and abuse. Nor do those in the insurance business faciitate policing of this restriction. Why? They directly and indirectly beneift from gaming the disaster efforts of the federal government and the disaster program directly in some cases and indirectly in others subsidizes that busines. Certainly, the NFIP also a disaster and land use program must always be understood to promote the subsidy of the insurance business.