Disasters in this country are nothing new. Even before the Declaration of Independence was signed, there were dozens of documented catastrophes in the colonies. In 1635, for instance, the Great Colonial Hurricane caused devastating damage and loss of life.
If we fast-forward to 1900, a hurricane hit Galveston, Texas that was responsible for between 6,000 and 8,000 deaths. Another 10,000 people were left homeless and at the time, only 38,000 people lived in Galveston. This is still considered the most deadly weather disaster in United States history.
Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, the federal government handled disaster response on a case-by-case basis. It wasn’t until 1917 (during World War I) that the first steps were taken to formalize disaster relief efforts.
Despite this legislation, relief at the federal level remained mostly as a financial backstop, leaving real support remained sporadic and informal. During the onset of the Cold War in the 1950s, the government absorbed disaster response into civil defense under the Federal Disaster Relief Act of 1950. For the next 25 years, disaster response and relief were juggled between various federal agencies without any clear leadership or direction.
During the 1970s, a couple of significant disasters occurred that prompted the government to take additional action. The first was Hurricane Agnes which killed 122 people in 1972. The storm was responsible for over $10 billion in damage by today’s standards.
Despite the federal government’s “pledge” to assist, the disaster relief effort was plagued by mass confusion and an overall lack of coordination. Even one year after the storm had passed; thousands of victims were still living in federal trailers – a blatant reminder of a failed disaster response system.
In 1979, a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania known as Three Mile Island experienced a reactor meltdown that forced mass evacuations from the area. It’s worth noting that although radiation never spread and no one died as a result of this disaster, media reports highlighted the possible outcomes and created a state of panic throughout the country.
During the Three Mile Island incident, federal, state, and local government agencies were all telling residents different instructions and providing different “facts” to media outlets. This embarrassment caused mass confusion and created more panic amongst the population.
The Birth of FEMA
Following these disasters, the Federal government decided to get their act together and combine its disaster relief and response efforts under a new agency known as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The idea was simple: create yet another new agency that will be the “go to” agency and combine the other agencies that had historically failed at providing timely and effective disaster relief. This way, rather than having 4 different groups, a single group would be responsible. There’s one problem with this. FEMA simply added an additional layer of bureaucracy.
We’ve talked many times about how open sourced solutions and processes will thrive. Bureaucracy is the exact opposite and the FEMA move only contributed to longer delays and more waste.
What’s worse is that rather than focusing on real solutions to local risks, state and local governments request FEMA involvement handouts from federal funding (often when the President declares a “state of emergency” funding isn’t an issue and the feds cover all expenses).
There are some other issues inherent to FEMA as well. For instance, FEMA is able to “pick and choose” what disaster situations it decides to help with. Once again, most of this help comes in the form of financial compensation after cleanup is finished. Typically, a state needs to apply for reimbursement after the disaster is over.
There is still no clear-cut response or relief plan in place today. Although FEMA sets guidelines that state and local governments are compelled to follow, the usual bureaucratic red tape complicates situations that would otherwise be taken care of quickly.
Last month’s flooding in Colorado is a perfect example. When FEMA arrived and promptly took over operations, they immediately began shutting down drone operations that were volunteered by a local company assisting local authorities in surveying the area for stranded people and assessing the outstanding risks. This incident clearly demonstrates how out of touch the federal government is in real-world situations.
Interestingly, the FEMA budget for FY2013 was a staggering $13.5 billion. Unfortunately it is difficult to point out what the organization has accomplished to justify this expense. Comparatively, from 1982 to 1991, FEMA only spent approximately $243 million preparing for natural disasters. During the same time period, FEMA’s budget was over $3 billion.
If you think this demonstrates responsible spending and government, you are wrong. During the same time period, $2.9 billion was spent by FEMA on classified “doomsday” projects including underground bunker systems in the Midwest designed to house politicians and other VIPs in the event of a global catastrophe.
This demonstrates that yet another government agency has no qualms about taking money from citizens for interests other than those that are important to the people who are funding these initiatives via tax dollars.
We Already Know the Government is a Failure – So What’s the Point?
Government failure is nothing new. As members of the resilient community, we have become accustomed to not relying on the government whenever possible.
The point of highlighting the government’s inability to take effective and appropriate action in times of need is simply to promote self-sufficiency in terms of disaster recovery. Although most of the examples above point to inadequacies at the federal level, many of these same issues plague state and local entities as well.
Basically, our local communities remained the strongest force in disaster response, recovery, and relief efforts. Without the government red tape, we are able to act quickly and appropriately to protect our assets and rebuild our communities following a catastrophic event.
If we rely on government agencies to assist during these times of need, we are likely to be disappointed. Months or even years after a catastrophe, some people are without homes as they await government funding to assist with cleanup efforts.
By taking precautionary measures now, we will reduce our dependency on FEMA and other organizations to assist in cleanup efforts. The result is certainly better than the alternative and represents yet another step toward a sustainable and resilient lifestyle.