Haggling over Hurricane Sandy relief: The unraveling of a rational disaster relief policy

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But the problem goes deeper than dysfunction in Congress: the real problem is that Congress is debating such appropriations at all.

Ever since President Harry Truman signed the Federal Disaster Relief Act of 1950, control over disaster relief appropriations was supposed to be in the hands of the Executive Branch.


And for good reason. Prior to this time, Congress had accumulated a colorful, 150-year record of special appropriations for survivors of fires, floods, storms, and other crises. But these appropriations proved erratic. Regional rivalries, political pettiness, economic gyrations and racial prejudice could sink a disaster relief bill.

In 1893 for example, the Senate considered a bill to provide $50,000 to survivors of a hurricane in South Carolina’s Sea Islands. The storm had destroyed the farms and fishing boats that the Sea Islanders – mostly former slaves and their families – relied on for subsistence. The bill’s Senate co-sponsor warned that every hour of legislative inaction would likely result in “some human being perishing of starvation.” 

Clara Barton, whose fledgling American Red Cross was helping the Sea Islanders, lobbied for the appropriation. Barton managed to enlist a South Carolina Democrat and a Massachusetts Republican, polar extremes in the smoldering postwar resentments between North and South, to jointly champion the bill. But opponents from other states objected and the bill died on the Senate floor. In subsequent years, the Sea Islanders continued to suffer from the storm’s aftermath, while better-represented disaster survivors received generous federal assistance.

Truman had proposed the 1950 law as a fiscal planning measure, so special disaster relief appropriations would no longer throw federal budgets out of whack. Subsequent overhauls of this legislation, together with President Jimmy Carter’s creation of FEMA in 1979, were supposed to streamline the process. These actions were aimed at taking decision-making over disaster assistance away from Congress, and putting it into the hands of expert public servants and the president, in order to insulate this process from the kind of petty politics that we have seen with Hurricane Sandy relief.

But disasters these days tend to overrun Executive Branch agencies’ budgets. Sandy’s cost has been estimated at over $70 billion, but FEMA’s disaster relief fund is currently less than $6.5 billion, and other federal agencies cannot make up the difference. So to fill the gap, Congress must pass big fat appropriations bills to funnel money to these agencies. If large-scale disasters continue to escalate in severity and frequency, and no meaningful action is taken at the highest levels of government, this pattern will likely worsen.

But what if President Obama were to take up Truman’s mantle of disaster relief reform? He could begin by ordering a report that uses data from recent disasters to forecast the real costs to the federal government for disaster relief over the next ten years. Such a report, if well publicized, could inform the debate over the relative costs of relief vs. prevention and planning.

The president could meanwhile lead a national conversation on how Americans can stop disasters from costing so much: Do we want to continue to seesaw between denial and shock, living in the most hazard-prone areas and expecting Washington to pay for the cleanup whenever disasters strike? Or do we want to change how and where we live? Such dialogue needs to take place soon, and it is doubtful that Congress will start it.

Jones, an assistant professor in the Department of Family Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, is author of The American Red Cross from Clara Barton to the New Deal
 (Johns Hopkins University Press, Nov. 2012).