When Hurricane Katrina pummeled New Orleans in 2005, Americans looked to the White House to handle the crisis. Not long ago this would have seemed odd. Only in the last 60 years, with the advent of executive agencies responsible for national security, has the president become the go-to official for disaster response. Patrick S. Roberts, an assistant professor of public administration at Virginia Tech, warns that the “fixation on the White House badly distorts the way America thinks about and prepares for major disasters.”
For most of the Republic’s history, federal assistance to disaster-stricken communities took the form of one-off congressional appropriations. The first of these came in 1803, when much of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, was destroyed in a fire. Congress provided a temporary waiver of tariffs to residents in hopes of attracting investment to rebuild the city. As a later instance shows, federal intervention could also be ad hoc: When Army troops helped restore order in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, they did so “informally,” with no instructions from Washington.
It wasn’t until the Great Depression that the federal government formalized its role. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation, created in 1932 to spur investment and lending, was also tasked with disbursing federal money for disaster relief. But it was the Cold War that really drew Washington into dealing with the aftermath of disasters. Agencies such as the Federal Civil Defense Administration were created to help the country in case of nuclear war, but, in part thanks to pressure from state and local governments, they soon became key instruments in responding to natural disasters.
In 1979, Congress created the Federal Emergency Management Agency, consolidating the various disaster-response programs spread throughout the government. In 2003, FEMA was brought under the aegis of the Department of Homeland Security. Even so, FEMA is not chiefly a hands-on agency; 90 percent of its $10 billion budget is consumed by grants to state and local governments and to individuals.
The money pot, along with increased media coverage, has changed the politics of disaster. In the past, localities tried to downplay the damage they suffered because they feared driving away potential investors and residents. Today, state and local governments have every reason to hope that hurricanes, fires, and floods look terrible on television. The 1988 Stafford Act guarantees that the federal government will cover a minimum of 75 percent of the response and recovery costs in presidentially declared disaster areas. Presidents have made more than a thousand such declarations.
It’s time for the White House to back off from disaster management, Roberts argues. The federal government should focus on preventing disasters in the first place by redirecting subsidies to steer development away from flood-prone areas, for example, and should encourage state and local officials to ramp up their disaster-prevention efforts.