How to Make Disasters More Costly and Harmful: Cut FEMA’s Budget

March 15, 2017 | 10:08 am
U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

Tomorrow the Trump administration is expected to release its “skinny budget,” which will lay out the president’s spending priorities for the discretionary portion of the annual federal budget for the coming fiscal year.

Early news reports and statements from the administration make clear that we’re likely to see proposals for large cuts in staff and budgets for several agencies, including NOAA, NASA, and the EPA. Defense spending is expected to grow.

One of the proposals is a potential 11 percent cut in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) budget. This would seriously undermine our nation’s ability to prepare for and recover from disasters, and put the safety of Americans at risk. What’s more, it’s a classic case of a “penny wise pound foolish” strategy that will actually end up costing taxpayers more in disaster assistance over the long haul. Congress should reject it.

Why we need FEMA (Part A): A federal lifeline when disasters strike

FEMA was created 38 years ago, and in 2003 became part of the Department of Homeland Security. Its mission statement is “to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from and mitigate all hazards.”

Much of FEMA’s role in coordinating federal disaster response is derived from its authority under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. When a major disaster strikes and exceeds a state’s capacity to respond alone, it can request a presidential disaster declaration. If that is granted, supplemental federal assistance is made available through FEMA for states to cope with the disaster.

In FY16 FEMA’s disaster relief funding (DRF) budget amounted to $6.7 billion.

FEMA’s Public Assistance grant program helps states and local governments recover from major disasters, including providing federal funding for “debris removal, life-saving emergency protective measures, and the repair, replacement, or restoration of disaster-damaged publicly owned facilities.” (See Table 1 below for a ranking of states in terms of dollars of Public Assistance they have received from 1999-2015.)

Why we need FEMA (Part B): Helping communities become stronger before the next disaster

While public attention is usually focused on emergency aid in the wake of disasters, programs that help reduce risks before a disaster strikes are equally, if not more, important.

News reports indicate that the Trump administration is likely to attack the portion of FEMA’s budget used to help states prepare for disasters. If this is borne out in the budget proposal, it would show extreme short-sightedness.

FEMA administers several programs that help states, territories, and tribal governments invest in preparedness measures to reduce the risks and costs of future disasters. FEMA typically funds 75 percent of project costs and states match the remaining 25 percent. These programs include:

  • The Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which helps communities implement measures to reduce long-term risks to people and property from hazards after a presidential major disaster declaration. Limited funds (up to 15 percent of total disaster grants) are available through this program after each disaster.
  • The Flood Mitigation Assistance Grant Program, which helps state and local governments fund projects and plans to reduce the long-term risk of flood damages for properties insured by the National Flood Insurance Program. In FY16, this program’s budget was $199 million.
  • The Pre-disaster Mitigation (PDM) Grant Program, authorized by the Stafford Act to help states, local governments and communities implement long-term measures to reduce the risks and losses from disasters. In FY16, this program’s budget was $90 million.

The flood mitigation assistance grant program and the PDM programs remain underfunded relative to the real need in communities. Research from Kousky and Shabman shows that almost 90 percent of FEMA funding on flood risk reduction comes in the aftermath of a big flood. This has some advantages because the local community has the opportunity to rebuild stronger at a time when its attention is focused on the problem. But, as the authors point out, investments in pre-disaster hazard mitigation are also important and present an opportunity to target federal aid to the highest risk areas in a cost-effective and well-thought out way.

Why we need FEMA (Part C): Helping reduce the costs of disasters by planning ahead

Studies repeatedly show that the best way of cutting the costs of disasters is to plan ahead and take steps to reduce risks. A frequently cited statistic from a 2005 National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) study: Every dollar FEMA invests in hazard mitigation saves $4 in disaster costs. This fall, NIBS is expected to release an updated version of this study to include all federal mitigation programs. Given the growing research on the costs and benefits of mitigation, the data are likely to show an even greater return on the dollar.

Working with other federal agencies, FEMA has compiled a set of tools and data that states, tribal governments and local communities can use to help plan for projected risks. FEMA’s flood hazard mapping efforts are particularly vital to help communities understand their risks and take protective measures. Yet the budget for this program is one of several that are reportedly on the chopping block.

Climate change is raising the risks of some types of disasters, including flooding worsened by sea level rise and heavy precipitation. That’s why in 2015 FEMA provided guidance requiring states to include climate change considerations in their hazard mitigation plans, which are updated every five years. This too could be reversed under the Trump administration.

Managing the spiraling costs of disasters

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), taxpayer advocates, and others have highlighted the growing costs of disasters for the federal taxpayer. Climate impacts could raise these costs and the harm to communities in the coming years, especially if we fail to plan ahead.

Instead of cutting FEMA’s budget, now is a critical time to double down on preparedness measures, especially in light of the risks that climate change is projected to bring. In a recent report, the GAO has identified a clear need for resources “to implement plans for reducing the federal fiscal exposure to disaster relief by improving resilience.”

FEMA has also recently proposed a way to bring disaster costs under control by encouraging states to invest in preparedness measures and take on a fair share of the costs of disasters. A Supplemental Advance Notice of Advance Rulemaking for the Public Assistance Deductible is available for comment until April 12, 2017. In the weeks ahead I will blog about the value of this type of concept.

Short-sighted budget cuts would be a disaster for states and communities

The Trump administration’s budget cuts are by no means a done deal. As my colleague Rob Cowin points out, in our democracy Congress has a key role to play in actually passing a budget.

Cuts to FEMA’s budget would mean that cash-strapped states and local governments would have to do their best to fill the hole, and communities nationwide will bear the brunt of the impact of diminished disaster preparedness.

That’s why Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio of Florida have already spoken out against these cuts, and likely many other Senators will join them.

The future of disaster preparedness depends on FEMA

Last month, the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications held a hearing on the future of FEMA. At the hearing, former FEMA administrator Craig Fugate spoke about the budgetary challenges already facing the agency due to the effects of the Budget Control Act, shortcomings in the formula used to calculate the DRF annual appropriation, and the political challenges of passing emergency disaster appropriations when needed.

Cutting FEMA funding will leave the agency less able to help disaster survivors in states, territories and tribal communities. Congress should reject the cuts to FEMA’s budget and maintain or increase funding for pre-disaster hazard mitigation programs to help protect Americans.

Table 1:

State Rank of Federal Assistance From 1999-2015
[FEMA Public Assistance, in 2015 dollars]
No. State Total federal share obligated (1999-2015) Annual average federal share obligated
1 New York $21,671,388,334 $1,274,787,549
2 Louisiana 16,621,415,286 977,730,311
3 Florida 6,399,822,001 376,460,118
4 Mississippi 4,180,836,633 245,931,567
5 Texas 4,094,422,168 240,848,363
6 New Jersey 2,357,737,579 138,690,446
7 Iowa 1,826,578,453 107,445,791
8 California 1,437,292,282 84,546,605
9 Oklahoma 1,131,691,340 66,570,079
10 Kansas 1,080,772,444 63,574,850
11 North Carolina 953,206,418 56,070,966
12 Missouri 888,379,570 52,257,622
13 Alabama 841,956,023 49,526,825
14 Arkansas 744,651,963 43,803,057
15 North Dakota 679,833,405 39,990,200
16 Virginia 643,863,349 37,874,315
17 Kentucky 615,307,272 36,194,545
18 Tennessee 602,295,312 35,429,136
19 Pennsylvania 557,230,633 32,778,273
20 Nebraska 435,308,536 25,606,384
21 Washington 428,584,871 25,210,875
22 Minnesota 426,982,553 25,116,621
23 Massachusetts 422,663,583 24,862,564
24 Colorado 408,338,653 24,019,921
25 South Carolina 384,041,986 22,590,705
M Median 377,446,341 22,202,726
26 Ohio 370,850,697 21,814,747
27 Georgia 328,820,892 19,342,405
28 West Virginia 311,011,683 18,294,805
29 Illinois 309,990,918 18,234,760
30 Vermont 297,996,556 17,529,209
31 Connecticut 284,870,352 16,757,080
32 South Dakota 284,612,022 16,741,884
33 New Mexico 274,303,673 16,135,510
34 Maryland 265,115,281 15,595,017
35 Indiana 237,955,033 13,997,355
36 Alaska 203,258,189 11,956,364
37 Wisconsin 174,472,096 10,263,064
38 Oregon 144,641,218 8,508,307
39 New Hampshire 137,674,702 8,098,512
40 Maine 91,683,905 5,393,171
41 Hawaii 87,697,345 5,158,667
42 Montana 70,196,126 4,129,184
43 Arizona 68,642,964 4,037,821
44 Rhode Island 63,361,303 3,727,135
45 Michigan 42,583,629 2,504,919
46 Delaware 39,007,437 2,294,555
47 Utah 34,208,312 2,012,254
48 Nevada 30,275,261 1,780,898
49 Wyoming 12,973,750 763,162
50 Idaho 11,695,737 687,985

Source: FEMA