Entries in Natural Disasters (3)


Obama Declared Record-Breaking 99 Disasters in 2011

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- In a year rife with Southern droughts, Midwest tornadoes and Eastern floods, President Obama declared a record-setting 99 disasters throughout 2011.  That's 20 more than he declared in 2010 and more than twice as many as President George W. Bush declared in either of his first two years in the White House.

But according to a Government Accountability Office report released this week, that constant uptick in disaster declarations might have resulted in large part from an antiquated process that dumps most of the responsibility for funding disaster recovery on the federal government instead of the states.

When the president declares a disaster, whether it be for a major hurricane or a flooded river, he commits the federal government to paying for 75 percent of the recovery effort.

According to the report, the president would likely have declared 44 percent fewer disasters -- and saved the federal government millions of dollars -- if the threshold for federal help were raised to keep up with inflation and increases in household incomes.

The bar is set at $1.35 in damages per resident, a threshold that "does not accurately reflect a jurisdiction's capability to respond to or recover from a disaster without federal assistance," the report states.

That federal funding bar has gone up a mere 35 cents in the past 25 years.  If it were adjusted for inflation, the federal government would not step in until damages exceeded $2.07 per resident.  And if the threshold were adjusted for increases in per-capita income, states would have to foot the bill for disasters with damage costs less than $3.57 per person.

If the federal government ups its requirements for dishing out disaster funds, the burden will fall to state and local governments to foot the bill.  Bryan Koon, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said without federal disaster funds, "the recovery process would be much slower and in some cases would be overwhelming" to rural or already cash-strapped communities.

If the bar for declaring disasters were pushed too high, Koons warned, "you could potentially stop or slow that community from ever recovering, in some circumstances, without federal funding."

But with administrative costs at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) having doubled in the past 20 years, Koons said, there is an opportunity at every level of government to improve how America deals with natural disasters.

"These are issues worthy of study and discussion because they are large amounts of money and impact a great majority of Americans," Koon said.  "I think there's a lot of opportunity there, a lot of ways we could improve our business practices."

The low threshold for declaring disasters is just one piece of why Obama is breaking records with his disaster declarations.

For one, the weather has been more disastrous during his presidency than it is has been in the past 30 years.

In 2011, there were nearly 200 separate events that caused at least $1 billion in damages, more than any year on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  It was the year Hurricane Irene brought catastrophic flooding to the Northeast; record-breaking tornadoes ripped through the Midwest, causing more than 500 deaths; and intense drought in the South wrecked crops and led to the driest year on record for Texas.

Price-wise, however, Obama's first three years in office paled in comparison to former President Bush's.  From 2009 through 2011, the federal government spent $9.7 billion on natural disaster recovery efforts, according to the GAO report.

During Bush's last three years in office, from 2006 through 2008, the federal government spent nearly twice that amount, doling out about $17 billion for recovery efforts from 190 bad-weather events.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


FEMA Bill Passes in the Senate, Faces Uphill Climb in the House

Architect of the Capitol(WASHINGTON) -- By a vote of 62-37, the Senate passed the $7 billion FEMA relief bill to provide aid to states across the country that have been ravaged by natural disasters this summer.

“It is a victory that still needs another step,” Sen. Bob Menendez, D-NJ., said after the vote.  “And I hope that the Senate sent a message to my House colleagues, particularly the Tea Party, that this is not a time to turn those people ravaged by the flood upside down once again by holding this legislation hostage.”

The bill will now go to the House of Representatives but faces a an uncertain future there.  Republicans in the House have a different strategy for FEMA funding.  They plan to attach disaster relief funding -- about half as much -- to a larger stop-gap spending bill that will fund the federal government through Nov. 18, which contains their $3.65 billion in disaster assistance for FEMA.  The House is expected to bring that larger government funding bill to the floor for a vote by Wednesday.

“That amount of money is not sufficient,” Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said Thursday night of the House’s proposed funding in the continuing resolution, adding that “FEMA is running on fumes.”

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


FEMA Funding: Napolitano Warns Against ‘Political Gridlock’

Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Could federal disaster relief become the next battleground over the federal deficit?

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said over the weekend that because of the string of natural disasters in the past year, its disaster relief fund had dwindled to about $900 million.  The agency said it might have to restrict recovery spending for other, recent natural disasters if Congress did not approve additional funds — a stark warning after the estimated multibillion dollars in damage caused by Hurricane Irene.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Tuesday urged Congress to avoid “political gridlock” and move quickly to approve more federal disaster funding in the wake of Hurricane Irene.

Political gridlock “should not be the first concern of the Congress,” Napolitano said. “I think the first concern of the Congress is what do we need to protect the health and safety of the people that we’re all privileged to represent. Congress knows that this is historically the way disaster relief has been funded.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said Republicans would approve more disaster relief only if spending cuts were made elsewhere in the federal budget to make up the difference. Napolitano and others fear that disaster relief could become the latest political football in the emotionally-charged debate over the federal deficit.

“At the beginning of the fiscal year, they don’t give you a crystal ball,” Napolitano told reporters Tuesday. “So the way they do the [Disaster Relief Fund] is they get the three-year rolling average. And then if you need more, then at the end of the year there’s a supplemental” bill passed by Congress and money is held up until more funding is provided.  She said Congress should continue to play by the established rules.

While calling for more funding, Napolitano said it was too early to tell just how much Hurricane Irene was going to cost.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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