On August 23, 2011, a 5.8 earthquake centered in Virginia was felt throughout the mid-Atlantic. Minor by the standards of the West Coast, the earthquake, even on the less-prepared East Coast, resulted in no deaths or serious injuries and only minor structural damage. Yet President Obama still declared the earthquake a “Major Disaster” and, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Administration has distributed over $25.2 million in recovery aid as of January 16.

This incident is one of the countless examples of the overuse of FEMA aid highlighted by Heritage fellow Matt Mayer in his latest WebMemo, “Congress Should Limit the Presidential Abuse of FEMA.” As Mayer explains, federal disaster aid is intended to provide relief following truly catastrophic disasters—extreme weather events, terrorist attacks, and other “black swan” events—that truly overwhelm local response capabilities. Yet, as the Hurricane Irene response shows, President Obama, following the example of Presidents Bush and Clinton, has turned federal disaster aid into pork-barrel spending, throwing money at nearly every small-scale disaster that comes our way.

The reality is that most disasters are local and should be handled by those who are directly impacted. Local governments and first responders best know their communities, their needs, and the resources at hand. Local response also encourages pervasive accountability and effective recovery.

Also at issue is the fact that responding to these minor disasters takes away from the kind of planning and preparation that FEMA should be doing for truly catastrophic disasters. FEMA’s staffing and budget, particularly in the face of the current fiscal crisis, are limited. The time and money spent on small-scale recovery efforts only detract from time spent preparing for true catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina and 9/11.

It’s time for Congress to restore FEMA to its proper role by:

  • Modifying the Stafford Act to establish clear requirements that limit the types of situations in which declarations can be issued;
  • Reducing the cost-sharing provision for all FEMA declarations to no more than 25 percent of the costs; and
  • Overhauling existing FEMA processes and procedures.

Let’s make sure FEMA can do the job it’s supposed to do.