Regulation / U.S. Domestic Policy

A Secondary Crisis? The Process of Federal Disaster Relief

Government agencies like FEMA are rarely the object of public attention, but when a crisis comes, their actions and decisions have important implications for citizens’ welfare.  For government agencies to deliver effectively when the bright light of the national media is shining upon them, they must conduct careful planning when not under public scrutiny.  The nation observes the quality of the agencies’ performance, but the underlying factors that shape that behavior deserve greater discussion. While bureaucratic structure and budget allocations are important to determining the ability of the agency to perform, these factors are largely outside its control. An area where discretion is more generally available is in procedural protocol. Agencies tend to be charged with devising their own operating rules, within statutory limits set by Congress. Agencies’ rule-making efforts are tested under the weight of a crisis, and the outcome can often quite literally be a matter of life and death.

The tornadoes that struck Oklahoma clearly call for a federal response: up to 13,000 homes were damaged, costing an estimated $2 billion.  Images from Moore, OK reveal the tragic extent of the devastation which led to the loss of 24 lives. Private insurance and non-profit volunteerism will be vital in recovering from the destruction, but FEMA must coordinate private relief efforts and account for the areas they overlook or are incapable of addressing.  How FEMA responds is dictated by procedures enshrined in law and regulations.

Turning the Gears of the FEMA Machinery

To begin the disaster response process, a state of emergency must first be declared.  To accomplish this, the state’s governor must formally request federal assistance in writing. If approved, then FEMA must send staff to the affected area, in coordination with local authorities.  FEMA must also have the necessary sum in its disaster relief fund to cover the expense of disaster response. In cases of shortfall, Congress is forced to pass a special bill providing it with additional dollars.

The speed with which these steps are taken matters.  In 2005, following Hurricane Katrina, federal emergency staff did not arrive at New Orleans until two days after the hurricane made landfall. In contrast, President Obama declared a federal emergency only hours after the tornadoes struck Oklahoma, and currently FEMA staff are already operating in affected cities like Moore. While the current disaster, although tragic, is not on the same scale as Hurricane Katrina, the disparity in the speed of the responses cannot be explained merely by the greater complexity of the challenge faced in 2005.  Rather, it is at least in part due to the decisions made by federal officials and the capacity of FEMA.

Once immediate disaster recovery assistance is offered by FEMA, states have to apply for continued funding after presidentially declared disasters. According to the Public Assistance program created by the Stafford Act, and FEMA’s implementing regulations, states and local governments must complete 15 forms in order to receive this aid. While it is difficult to assess exactly how large a burden this imposes upon the affected governments seeking continued assistance while they are still pressed with the demands of disaster recovery, as not all forms are filled out before the aid is received (some consist of progress reports), the average time it takes a respondent to comply is 6,100 hours. By initially declaring an emergency, the federal government will have already recognized the severity of the situation. With the need for aid not deeply in question, it seems that possibilities must exist to streamline the system and reduce the paperwork.

Obstacles to Individual Relief

Procedures are also significant in FEMA’s interaction with individual Americans. Through its Individuals and Households Program, FEMA is authorized to distribute up to $31,900 to those in need of assistance following natural disasters. The regulations promulgated by FEMA will dictate how eligible citizens receive these funds, affecting the rate and accuracy with which aid can be distributed.

Once on the ground, federal officials need to identify those in need before they are able to distribute financial assistance to them.  To accomplish this, FEMA has a registry system for relief. Yet registration does not automatically lead to receipt of aid. Once registered, the process can only proceed if the affected individuals submit proof that their insurance claim was denied, as FEMA will not cover the same damage already paid for under private providers’ plans. FEMA estimates that it takes 18-20 minutes to apply, but doing so requires a description of lost and damaged property – something that can only be properly done when residents are able to return to their home and assess their condition, no guarantee after a disaster displaces an area’s population.

Filling out excessive paperwork and worrying over complicated eligibility criteria are unneeded extra burdens for individuals suffering from the aftermath of a natural disaster.  If people’s homes were lost, they may not have easy access to the records needed to complete forms and prove eligibility.  The destruction of infrastructure could make accessing a computer or the Internet unfeasible, forcing people to locate and reach a disaster assistance center when transportation options could be limited. Certain steps, like the aforementioned proof of denial by a private insurer, inevitably extend the process, as their completion takes time. Therefore, while the actual application process for federal disaster assistance is not overly lengthy or complex, circumstances commonly faced after a disaster could increase the burden.

Of course, some forms are required in order for FEMA to obtain the necessary information to proceed in an orderly manner. Following a tornado in Birmingham, AL in April 2011, 17 individuals were charged with defrauding the government through misrepresenting their needs. Such situations can be better avoided through cautious and thorough verification requirements. But such precautions are timely, and the need for accuracy and fairness in distributing aid must be balanced against that for speed and accessibility. Fortunately, it appears that FEMA has been sensitive in its response to the Oklahoma disaster to the difficult circumstances of individuals attempting to qualify for aid:  the registration can be accomplished via smart phone (here) and numerous staff trained to assist people with completing the process have been dispatched to the area. Nevertheless, as of Thursday, only 158 applications for individual assistance had been approved out of the more than 1500 registrations submitted.  This may not reflect only the difficulty faced by individuals in completing applications. FEMA has more than 500 vacant positions because of the sequester; thus its workforce could be struggling with paperwork itself, struggling to match the inflow of applications.

It is still too early to completely evaluate the federal government’s response to the Oklahoma tornadoes, but it appears that it has been effective on the whole thus far.  The difficulty in striking the balance between procedural rigor and consumer convenience is a problem plaguing all government interactions with the public in which collecting information is involved.  Yet it becomes even more acute when actions must be taken under the pressure of immediate need, as FEMA must often do.  By crafting regulations that best navigate the situation, imposing the slightest possible burden upon citizens while still collecting the necessary information, made increasingly achievable due to advances in technology and data management, government can best serve the public welfare.  It sadly often requires the spark of a crisis to remind us of the consequences of how regulations, when inconvenient and complex, can disrupt the distribution of much needed services.