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Thursday, September 21, 2023


GOP wants every dollar spent by FEMA offset by matching cuts

Perfect Storm

| Illustration Courtesy of Callie Parrish

Last week provided two reminders of the devastation that can be amassed when nature collides with man. Marking the somber six year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and, coincidentally, the landfall of Hurricane Irene on the Northeastern coast, the final week of August falls in the middle of an increasingly active hurricane season.

While seemingly incomparable in magnitude, both events were disasters in their own right, with each costing into the billions for cleanup and repair. Of course, the preparation for and immediate aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Irene offer stark lessons in contrast regarding government efficacy — the former being an embarrassing and inexcusable mishandling of money and resources, and the latter being a model of proper caution and coordination of multiple agencies and organizations.

Despite its vilification, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was nonetheless essential in restoring the Gulf Coast — a process that continues today. FEMA is already proving to be equally important in the remediation of the eastern seaboard.

There will inevitably be criticism leveled at the agency, no matter how well it does its present job. But it remains a principle responsibility of the federal government to provide many of the resources needed to deal with such widespread disasters.

It simply is beyond the capability of most cities and states to shoulder the billions of dollars necessary to cope with such disasters. And it would be beyond inhumane for the federal government to leave the victims of such disasters to fend for themselves.

Even as people condemn the perceived ineptitudes and failings of FEMA, there remains the expectation that the government will respond to disasters without conditions or limits on its spending. However, some members of Congress are trying to take advantage of the nation’s financial crisis in order to curtail expenditures on this very type of emergency cleanup. In their view, money allocated towards restoring the lives of US citizens is “discretionary spending,” a notion that trivializes government responsibility by making it a matter of debate.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and several prominent Republicans have proposed that every dollar that is spent tending to a natural disaster be fully offset by spending cuts elsewhere in the budget. If enacted, emergency assistance will become conditional on cutting funding to other government programs.

The logistics of carrying out such a plan seem inordinately burdensome. If response to an emergency is predicated by first obtaining funds from other programs, there will be significant and potentially life-threatening delays in delivering aid.

This is equivalent to paramedics asking for cash up front before delivering a critically injured person to a hospital. Given the fact that Congress is currently characterized as being inoperable and sluggish, there should be no expectation for any sort of timely action.

Even if allowances are made to enact the cuts after money has been spent on disaster relief, these new economic constraints will result in the underfunding of repair programs in order to minimize cost. While there is the potential to reduce wasteful spending, it is likely that many federal agencies would simply cut the level of assistance they offer, and the local governments would have to pick up the remaining costs.

Without question, the government can improve upon FEMA and other disaster relief agencies, but there should not be limits on their ability to quickly and fully meet the needs of areas in crisis.

Placing conditions on the financing of recovery efforts imposes further hardships on the cities and states affected. Attention must be paid towards ensuring that the provided funds are properly spent, but this should be carried out via careful oversight, not monetary restrictions.

It is not a matter of choice that the federal government serves as a lifeline for US citizens who have no one else to turn to after enduring the wrath of nature. There should be no cost/benefit analysis when it comes to repairing shattered lives.

Marc Anderson is a 3rd-year cell biology Ph.D. student and may be reached at [email protected].

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