A Record Year for Disasters—and Promises of Federal Help
By Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer
Last week, when President Obama named New Jersey a federal disaster area for floods that came before Hurricane Irene, he cemented 2011's ranking as the United States' most disaster-prone year ever.
Through the third week of September, Obama had issued 84 federal disaster declarations at the request of governors. That is more declarations than in any year since the score was first kept six decades ago. And there are still three months left in 2011.
Much of the reason for this year's record, of course, is bad weather. Damage included virtually unheard of cold spells in Oklahoma, dozens of tornadoes in Alabama, rising rivers threatening towns throughout the Midwest, drought-fueled wildfires in Texas and Hurricane Irene, which soaked nearly the entire Eastern seaboard.
Still, bad weather does not tell the whole story. Scholars and experts suggest many other reasons for the recent surge: Suburban sprawl is pushing people into more places, increasing the likelihood that storms will hit populated areas. A larger share of the population now lives closer to the coasts than a generation ago, increasing the damage when a hurricane comes ashore. Global warming may even play a role.
Those trends, however, started well before the current upswing in disaster declarations. And Craig Fugate, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is quick to dismiss global warming, in particular, as a cause for the upswing in disaster aid. When a reporter asked him this spring whether climate change had caused so many tornadoes, Fugate retorted: "Actually, what we're seeing is springtime."
Perhaps the public outcry over the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina is spurring governors to plead for help early. But emergency managers insist they have not changed their criteria for asking for federal help since Katrina hit in 2005.
Another force that has historically influenced disaster declarations is politics. For decades, the number of presidential disaster declarations spiked in the re-election years of sitting presidents. It held true for Ronald Reagan in 1984, George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Bill Clinton in 1996.
John Gasper, a political science professor from Carnegie Mellon University, says it was governors, not presidents, who were behind those spikes. "Strategically," Gasper says, "(governors) know it is an opportune time to ask for aid, and the president is really eager to come in and make media appearances."
But the current upswing bucks that trend: Disaster declarations have set new records in 2010 and 2011, neither of them presidential re-election years. And if you take an even longer view, you find that the number of federally recognized disasters has been climbing slowly almost since the concept was introduced under President Eisenhower, with the most dramatic upswing in recent years, election or not.
Whatever the reasons, governors have been asking for help this year as never before. Tennessee has been first on the list. It received five presidential disaster declarations in 2011, the most in the state's history. It endured the flooding of Nashville last year, only to be hit with springtime storms this year that devastated nearly every corner of the state.
"We've had wave after wave of very, very severe weather events," says Dean Flener, a spokesman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. To cope with new threats, the state now has representatives from the National Weather Service and the Army Corps of Engineers stationed in a disaster response center to respond to floods more quickly. While dealing with this year's damage, the 110-person agency also still is processing paperwork for more than 6,000 projects related to last year's floods.
Iowa, Oklahoma and New York, meanwhile, also have had four presidential disaster declarations this year.
Christopher Emrich, a University of South Carolina professor who studies weather-related damage, says the country is experiencing more damage both from major events — like Hurricanes Katrina or Irene — and from "recurrent, chronic events that really don't make the newspaper headlines."
"Even if climate change does not influence future hazards," says Emrich, "we clearly have droughts (now) that we can't contend with, flooding we can't contend with, and hurricanes and tropical systems that we have not adopted to."
The federal government and some states have been slow to adjust to the upswing. Six times in the past decade — including this year — the federal government stopped paying for long-term recovery projects, so it could use the cash for more pressing needs. This year, finding money for disaster relief shortfalls has proven especially difficult on Capitol Hill. Last week, the U.S. House voted down a measure to spend $3.65 billion more on disaster aid before reversing itself and approving it. The eventual approval put the House at odds with the Senate, which wants more money for disaster relief.
Meanwhile, the state of Oklahoma — which has been walloped by bad weather in recent years — still owes money for recovery efforts from 2007. Albert Ashwood has reported to three governors — two Republicans and one Democrat — as director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, a post he has held since 1997. Under his watch, Oklahoma has experienced a dramatic rise in federally recognized disasters. The state received nine disaster declarations between 2002 and 2007. In the years since, has it had more than double that, a total of 22.
"Everything we're asking for (now), we would have asked for 10 years ago or 15 years ago," Ashwood says. He says the state is not simply asking for money from Washington; each declaration requires the state to pay a share of the cost, too. For most disasters, the federal government pays 75 cents for every dollar of relief, while Oklahoma and its localities each pick up 12.5 cents. Even that fraction has been a burden. The state has not paid its share of disaster expenses since 2007.
Ashwood also says that FEMA is looking more warily on Oklahoma's applications, given the number of them the state has filed lately. And the feds have rejected some of Oklahoma's requests, including a petition for disaster relief after a snowstorm earlier this year.
The recent rise in disasters comes as governments at every level — federal, state and local — are watching their budgets fall. "Nobody has the capability to do everything on their own anymore," says Randy Duncan, the director of Sedgwick County Emergency Management in Wichita, Kansas.
Eddie Hicks, the president of the U.S. chapter of the International Association of Emergency Managers, says Alabama, where he works, now relies more heavily on regional cooperation to respond to disasters such as this spring's tornadoes and Hurricane Katrina. Thanks in part to increased federal spending, there are more generators to share and more teams that can help with law enforcement, swift water rescue and even mortuary support.
But counties cannot shoulder the costs themselves, warns Hicks, who is also emergency management director in Morgan County. A presidential declaration helps counties pay for the outside responders who come to help with disasters like the tornadoes that hit Alabama this spring, not to mention the long-term recovery costs. Morgan County is struggling just to pay its share of the response for the tornadoes, he says. "A small county or a financially strapped county cannot weather that kind of response."