The Best Policy

Defining Disaster Down

Have we gotten soft–or just greedy?

When they closed the wedding chapels, brothels, and even the 24-hour casinos in Nevada early this month, I knew that disaster had truly struck. “It’s a strange feeling to see the casinos dark,” said a Harrah’s spokeswoman. Sort of like when Winston Churchill noticed the lights going out all over Europe.

Until then, I had been skeptical about media reports of natural disasters. Earlier that week, Washington’s governor had declared an emergency in several parts of his state after it had been hit by a set of snowstorms (this was before warm rain turned the snow into floodwater). A Slate colleague in Redmond, a Seattle suburb and the home of Microsoft, allowed that the roads were treacherous and that a lot of people were without electricity. But somehow, it didn’t feel like an “emergency” to a man who had grown up in the Midwest, where they know from blizzards. “Have we gotten soft?” he wondered.

W ell, have we? Having lowered our standards on what constitutes commonly acceptable behavior–”,” as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., famously put it–have we also reduced the threshold for commonly accepted calamity? Have we “defined disaster down”? Only in this case–unlike in Moynihan’s–the redefinition has served to increase, rather than decrease, the required level of government intervention, shifting to the national treasury responsibility for hardships that individuals and localities once stoically assumed.

Only an incorrigible cynic would suspect the victims of quakes, tornadoes, and wildfires of smiling at the thought of the fat government relief check that would enable them to pack up for sunnier climes, or at least to replace that crummy old carpeting in the living room. And yet, the data do suggest that something more than outrageous fortune is at work.

Spending on disasters by the Federal Emergency Management Agency burgeoned to $13 billion over the last five years from $3.3 billion over the previous five. Billions more were spent collectively by some 28 other federal agencies such as the Small Business Administration and the departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture, and the Interior. Before 1993, no snowstorm or blizzard had been declared a “major disaster or emergency” by the president (though federal help had been offered in a dozen or so other “winter events” in which additional damage, such as the downing of utility lines, had occurred). Since 1993, nearly four dozen severe winter storms have been so designated, 17 in 1996 alone. Last year, in fact, was a banner year for calamity: FEMA found itself responding to 75 major disasters and eight emergencies so designated by the White House. The previous record, of 45 disasters and two emergencies, was set in 1992.

Of course, both 1992 and 1996 were election years. An unscientific mind, noting the tendency of relief aid to gravitate toward electorally rich states, might even conclude that the gods of mayhem conspire with incumbents to provide calamitous occasions for the demonstration of political compassion. After all, California, with 54 electoral votes, received 55 percent of federal disaster aid from 1989 to 1994, and Florida, with 20 votes, garnered 20 percent.

John Solomon, who provides these last data in an article in the October 1996 WashingtonMonthly, offers a less credulous explanation: Disaster relief is “a unique example of political pork that everyone accepts as kosher.”

Yes, it’s pork, but we are a wealthy country. Why shouldn’t we all pitch in and help each other out when times are tough? True, Clinton’s appetite for greenbacked compassion is keen. (In September 1996, when Hurricane Fran upended Durham, N.C., the local Herald-Sun agreed to distribute a FEMA advice booklet, only to discover–according to the paper’s editor–that the booklet was held up for five crucial days so that it could be reworked to feature pictures of, and messages from, the president and Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt.) Still, it’s a bipartisan taste, and when both parties dig in, the banquet never ends.

More than two years after the 1994 Northridge, Calif., earthquake, for example, HUD found itself still paying generous rent subsidies to more than half of the 13,000 displaced lower-income residents who had been granted “temporary” aid after the disaster. Many, according to a February 1995 story in the LosAngelesTimes, had been moved to housing far superior to their disaster-damaged homes. Last May, the Republican-controlled Congress voted to make the subsidies permanent.

Nor does it seem fair to blame the bureaucrats. FEMA got nothing but brickbats for its slow and stumbling performance in the aftermath of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew. When, under Clinton appointee James Lee Witt, the agency finally earned rave notices for its response to the Great Flood of 1993, only the dullest functionary could have missed the lesson: When you do battle with disaster, no medals are awarded for being stingy.

Not surprisingly, examples abound of disaster-aid abuses and misuses over the last few years. James Bovard provides a useful compendium in the September 1996 AmericanSpectator, drawing on the periodic critiques prepared by FEMA’s own inspector general and the General Accounting Office.

Yet it’s also noteworthy that the bulk of the recommendations put forth by GAO came from FEMA regional officials themselves. These include ideas such as limiting the appeals that states and individuals can file if the feds decline to pick up restoration costs–while these appeals are pending, FEMA has to pick up the full costs of relocating not only families but also such expensive entities as city halls and universities. Another idea: Eliminating help (including expensive re-landscaping) now provided to golf courses, marinas, and other revenue-generating enterprises that can well afford their own insurance.

Nor does the agency harbor any illusions about the “moral hazards” engendered by its fight against the hazards of nature. FEMA officials could be heard last week bemoaning the fact that people just keep moving back into the flood plains from which only a few years earlier they had been rescued, even as developers destroy more of the watershed that offered some natural protection. Among the “Frequently Asked Questions” FEMA posts on its Web site is the following: “I think that some people in my neighborhood are trying to cheat the federal government out of disaster money. They don’t seem to have the damage they claim they have, and they’re bragging about it. Who can I report disaster fraud to?”

But rule bending by individuals is probably penny ante stuff compared with the advantage taken by states and their agencies, upon whom FEMA’s tiny audit staff must rely to verify all but the largest grants. California officials have been especially aggressive, muscling reluctant FEMA officials to expend billions on “code upgrades” requiring massive or even total reconstruction of buildings suffering relatively minor damage. One FEMA inspector told GAO that some survey-damage reports after the Northridge quake included work that had been specifically rejected after the Loma Prieta quake five years earlier.

Local governments quickly learn bad lessons, too. If they are foolish enough to set aside reserves to cover their own cleanup costs after storms and floods, they get no help at all. On the other hand, if, having gotten a FEMA loan to cover most of their emergency bills, they somehow fail to raise enough revenues to cover all their regular spending plus the payback cost three years later, FEMA will forgive the debt. It may not surprise you to learn that few loans are repaid. GAO offers examples of localities banking extra FEMA money and collecting interest on it. And now an imaginative but severely crime-ridden neighborhood in Minneapolis is threatening to ask President Clinton to declare their district a federal disaster area on the grounds that state and local authorities can’t or won’t cope with their long-running problems.

In responding to GAO’s recommendations for reform, FEMA Director Witt noted that, however well taken, they, like previous reforms, were likely to be rejected by Congress because they would “seriously affect benefits to the states and their citizens.” Now you know why the federal deficit is so big.

Witt wants to devote his efforts to “mitigation” instead, to helping localities prepare better for the next disaster. Handing out a new kind of grant has, after all, a great deal more political appeal than trying to crack down on the old kind. But, it’s worth remembering when the next set of calamities hits your television screen–or, far worse, your own community–that when we decide to “nationalize” our problems, the overhead tends to get very high, very fast. And some of the largest costs are paid in the corrosion of those personal and community standards that we claim to value most.