Almost on cue after Hurricane Sandy, conservatives and libertarians have begun arguing that the federal government should get out of the business of providing disaster relief. The function could be delegated to states and the private sector, they claim, echoing an argument advanced by Mitt Romney last year.
But they’re wrong. The private sector and states cannot muster the resources that the federal government can. To deal with massive disasters like Sandy, we need the feds.
Conservatives touting the market often refer to one paper, by Professor Stephen Horwitz, arguing that Wal-Mart responded more efficiently to Hurricane Katrina than the federal government. While it’s widely agreed that Wal-Mart played an important role in the aftermath of the 2005 storm, it amounted to only $17 million in direct donations and roughly $25 million when you include in-kind work. By contrast, the federal government spends $10 billion every year on routine disaster preparedness, a figure that spikes in the case of severe disasters like Katrina. It’s simply inconceivable that corporations would be capable of filling that gap on their own.
But isn’t most of that federal money wasted? Not really, say the experts. Michigan State Professor Saundra Schneider wrote in her survey of recent American disaster relief efforts that “for the vast majority of natural disasters, public institutions respond very well.” When asked if the private sector could fill-in for the government, she scoffed. “The government is the only entity that has the power and resources to deal with this disaster of this scope,” Schneider said. “[There’s] a pretty strong consensus in the literature, especially the social science literature, that that’s needed.”
Indeed, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) itself has had a rather sterling track record in responding effectively to crises like Sandy — but while the agency suffered under both Presidents Bush, it prospered during the Clinton administration. During the Bush administrations, FEMA was considered a backwater agency, led by unqualified nominees and given relatively little attention. The results were catastrophically bad responses to 1992’s Hurricane Andrew and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. After Andrew, President Clinton’s renewed attention on FEMA revitalized the agency, resulting in a substantially more effective agency. As The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn notes, FEMA’s response to last year’s tornadoes was generally considered exceptional. And New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a prominent Romney surrogate and vice presidential contender, has praised the organization’s swift response to Sandy, saying “The federal government’s response has been great…The President has been outstanding in this and so have the folks at FEMA.”
Currently, federal, state, and local governments all play critical roles in managing disaster relief. The system works in the following way: local governments respond first, turn to the state government if the disaster exceeds their resources, who in turn may ask FEMA to step-in. This system works pretty well — as Richard Sylves, a disaster expert at the University of Delaware, notes, most disasters are handled by local and occasionally state governments. This means that most disaster relief is already delegated locally.
The principal federal role, Sylves writes, is to “supplement, not supplant, the efforts of others…[federal aid is designed to] stimulate and guide emergency planning efforts, furnish substantial response efforts after (and sometimes before) a governor secures help from the President, and fund many disaster mitigation efforts.” In other words, the feds provide money, material and coordination states can’t give on their own. Natural disasters often spill across state lines, requiring coordination and cooperation between states with different economic abilities and constraints. Moreover, the sheer expense of disaster relief stretches the limited resources of poor states and states with restrictive balanced budget amendments. Effective response to major disasters requires federal assistance.