FEMA needs funding even after the storms have passed

FEMA needs funding even after the storms have passed
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Hurricane season landed a devastating one-two-three punch this year, with three Category 4 storms making landfall in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands back-to-back-to-back. Once again, we have a monumental humanitarian crisis on our soil. And, once again, all eyes are on FEMA, which, in plain terms, is tasked with relieving the mass-scale suffering of Americans right now, and helping them rebuild in the coming months and years.

Hurricane Maria, the strongest storm to hit U.S. territory in almost 100 years, has devastated the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Many areas of Puerto Rico are under water, and the entire island, home to more than three million people, has gone dark and is not expected to be back on the grid anytime soon. It is already being labeled a humanitarian crisis.

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A few months back, before we knew that this September’s catastrophes would be named Harvey, Irma and Maria, I wrote about the importance of FEMA. At the time, the Trump administration expressed a willingness to cut the agency’s funding, which I believed would ultimately cost us dearly, not only in dollars and cents, but in human misery.

 

During relatively quiet times, FEMA’s importance, indeed its very existence, tends to fade from the public’s consciousness. 

Unfortunately, at these times, the agency can become a target for budget cuts. The images of traumatized people in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, their obvious suffering, and their outsized losses, heartbreakingly underscore the complexity and magnitude of FEMA’s work. The rays of light from these disaster areas are images of FEMA workers stepping in to help in the way the rest us only wish we could. We should be incredibly proud of the men and women of FEMA. 

FEMA’s search and rescue teams have worked heroically and tirelessly to help people escape disaster areas and have provided help to local emergency crews that would otherwise be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the devastation.

FEMA has provided mass amounts of food and water to people in need. It has found shelter for tens of thousands of victims. It has also deployed Disaster Survivor Assistance Teams to make sure that people who need help can register with the agency. And its Disaster Recovery Centers have opened quickly to provide victims a place to go to speak directly with FEMA representatives. It is gearing up for long-term recovery in the affected areas, and it is providing hope that although the current situation seems insurmountable — it isn’t.

The need for more funding for FEMA right now is obvious. This year has been anything but average and FEMA has had no rest. It has been called upon to deploy resources to disaster sites in Texas, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and most recently, Puerto Rico, all in a matter of weeks.

A few weeks back, Congress approved an emergency supplemental appropriation for FEMA, replacing already dwindling funds. That money is desperately needed to provide basic necessities to victims. As the work in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands shifts towards long-term recovery and rebuilding, additional funding will be essential.

It should go without saying that this isn’t a time to play politics. When New York and New Jersey needed relief in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, some lawmakers who are now seeking help for their own beleaguered constituents voted no. We must do better, and New York lawmakers have vowed to rise above partisan politics to ensure that hurricane victims get the help they need.

In order for FEMA to provide effective disaster relief, it must be prepared before disasters like Katrina, Sandy, Irma, Harvey and Maria are upon us. We know that there are no shortcuts. It takes time and money to be prepared. But by investing in disaster preparedness before disaster strikes, the government will be saving money on the back end and it will have an agency that can fulfill its critical mission when it is called upon.

When Irma, Harvey and Maria are no longer front-page news, FEMA will still be working to help these regions recover. But it will also be preparing and planning for the next disasters, whatever and wherever they might happen. We would do well to remember this. If we cut off FEMA’s lifeblood during relatively calm periods, we will undermine the agency’s ability to respond effectively when mass-scale disasters strike. And strike they will.

Michael Barasch is an attorney and managing partner at Barasch McGarry Salzman & Penson. His law firm has over 36 years of experience advocating for the rights of first responders nationwide.