Republican National Convention

ST. PAUL — The mood here in Minneapolis-St. Paul is quite somber on what is going to be a radically scaled down first day of the Republican National Convention. All eyes are on the Gulf Coast region and the approaching Hurricane Gustav. John McCain summed up the feelings of many when he said from St. Louis yesterday, “It’s time to take our Republican hats off and put our American hats on.

Currently a Category 2 hurricane, Gustav has already dislocated more than 2 million people from Texas to Alabama. Tidal surges of up to 14 feet are expected to devastate some small towns, and New Orleans has already sent 18,000 of its poorest residents, by bus, to Memphis. This is exactly the type and scale of a disaster that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was created to address. And early reports suggest they are up to the task. For too long, however, before Hurricane Katrina, FEMA became a politicized and overused federal agency that is stretched way beyond its proper mission.

Created by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, FEMA merged multiple federal programs into one agency intended to provide a single coordinator for federal support after local disasters. From 1980 to 1992, FEMA responded to an average of 33 emergency declarations a year. Nineteen of those disasters inflicted more than $1 billion in damage. Half of those disasters were hurricanes, while the rest were storms, floods and an earthquake. During President Bill Clinton’s tenure, FEMA became a politicized entity seen as a vehicle for distributing pork and wedding people to the federal government. During Clinton’s two terms, FEMA was involved in 88 emergencies per yer — almost triple the average of the previous 12 years. FEMA dealt with 33 emergencies the that did more than $1 billion during that stretch: six were hurricanes and the others were 26 storms, floods, droughts and one earthquake. President Bush only intensified FEMA’s reach, deploying the agency 760 times in his first six years, an average of more 126 declarations per year.

From 1992 to 2006 the number of declarations FEMA dealt with each year tripled while its staff was reduced by 20%. Given FEMA’s decades long mission overstretch, its lack of preparation for Hurricane Katrina should not be surprising. FEMA is now tasked with responding to virtually every drought, freeze, flood and crop failure in the country. In a post-9/11 and post-Katrina world, FEMA should focus on its mission as a catastrophic response agency, not a routine disaster coordinator. Congress should establish a higher threshold for what triggers a fed­eral emergency declaration and focus FEMA primarily on preparing to respond to catastrophes, not routine emergencies.

More importantly, scaling down FEMA’s event portfolio strengthens federalism by allowing state and local governments to develop their own proficiencies. Gov. Jeb Bush recently wrote in a Washington Post op-ed:

The most effective response is one that starts at the local level and grows with the support of surrounding communities, the state and then the federal government. The bottom-up approach yields the best and quickest re­sults — saving lives, protecting property and getting life back to normal as soon as possible. Furthermore, when local and state govern­ments understand and follow emergency plans appropriately, less taxpayer money is needed from the federal government for relief. …

Before Congress considers a larger, direct federal role, it needs to hold communities and states accountable for properly prepar­ing for the inevitable storms to come.

So far it appears that state and local officials are being much more proactive in their response than they were for Katrina in 2005. Our thoughts, and those of everyone here in Minnesota, are with the citizens in the path of Gustav.

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