Tag Archives: FEMA

Demolition Days On End

The television talking heads are talking about today’s sound and fury from the White House as “Demolition Day;” as if every day the mullet-maned moron occupying the Oval Office hasn’t been doing this from day one.

What is buttressing my sanity for the moment is the fact that MMM had a 49.4% approval rating in Nevada as of January 2017 (38.9% disapproval) and dropped to an approval rating of 43.6% in September 2017 and a disapproval rating of 51.2% in the Silver State.  [CNBC]

Much more love from the Republican Congress and the President and Nevada’s going to find itself in a world of hurt.   Case in point:  If the Republicans get their way in the FY 2018 budget 56,044 Nevada families will lose food assistance as of 2023, and 52,613 will lose them as of 2027.   But wait, there’s even more fun … another grand idea in this budget fiasco is to shift $100 billion of SNAP costs to the states.  So, Nevada would have to come up with 10% of the costs by 2020 and this increases to 25% in 2023 and beyond. Just in case lower income, mostly working, families in Nevada aren’t punished enough the GOP plan says states will have more “flexibility” to cut benefit levels to “manage costs.”  Of course Nevada will have to figure out how to get lower income working families basic food items at the local groceries, at state expense.  In case someone’s thinking this makes economic sense (that tired old canard about welfare queens on food stamps with waste and fraud) the actual numbers indicate that for every $5.00 spent on food stamps $9.00 is generated in economic activity. [CBPP] [MJ]

Case in point: The FY 2018 budget calls for cuts in fire-fighting operations.  As if the fires in California weren’t headline news at the moment.  The IAFC isn’t happy  seeing an FY 2017 budget of $2,833,000 for wildland fire management cut to $2,495,058 in FY 2018; or cuts to State Fire Assistance from $78 million down to $69.4 million, and Volunteer Fire Assistance from $15 million to $11.6 million.  And, by the way, the FLAME program (pdf) funding (wildfire reserve suppression fund, large fires) would be eliminated in the GOP budget.  Supposedly, the FY 2018 would sustain current 10 year average costs for fire suppression. [ECO]  The word “supposedly” is used with some caution, because as we experience climate change effects, the cost of fire suppression can be reasonably expected to increase, with a coterminous effect on budgets.   Meanwhile, there’s the matter of expensive fires in Napa and Sonoma counties.

And, then there’s the not-so-small matter of FEMA:

“The president’s budget blueprint calls for FEMA’s budget for state and local grants to be cut by $667 million, saying that these grants are unauthorized or ineffective. The program it explicitly calls out as lacking congressional authorization is the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program, and a second proposed change would require all preparedness grants to be matched in part by non-federal funds. All of FEMA’s pre-disaster grants are meant to reduce federal spending after disasters, and according to the agency’s website, there’s evidence that $1 in mitigation spending saves $4 in later damages.”  [Newsweek]

There are two points to highlight in this paragraph.  First, the budget cuts are made to grants for disaster mitigation efforts, without saying why the grants are “ineffective,” and we should note that any program can be declared “ineffective” if the standards aren’t reasonable. Secondly, as in the case of food stamps, there’s an upfront economic benefit — for every $1 spent on mitigation we save $4 in subsequent damage costs.   Once more we have a grand example of being penny wise and pound foolish.

Nor are the Republicans keeping their promises not to mess with Social Security and Medicare.

“Not only would it (the FY 2018 budget) cut Medicaid by $1 trillion, it would also cut Medicare by more than $470 billion in order to pay for hundreds of billions in tax breaks to the wealthiest people and most profitable corporations in America. Further, the Republican tax plan this budget calls for would increase the federal deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next decade, which will likely pave the way for savage cuts to Social  Security.”  [SenDem]

Oh, and by the way… let’s sabotage the NAFTA talks, scrap the only treaty containing Iran’s arms aspirations (and tick off all the other European allies who signed on), send a signal to North Korea that our word’s not worth paper on which it’s written, let the health insurance market destabilize into chaos, and withdraw from UNESCO.

And here we sit, not a shining beacon on a hill, but a flickering flame bent to whatever winds happen to be blowing through the head of MMM in the White House.  Not only are programs and services in peril within our own state, but the nation and the world are facing similar dangers emanating from an unraveling White House.

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Filed under Economy, FEMA, Health Care, health insurance, Nevada, Nevada budget, Nevada economy, Nevada politics, Politics, public health, Republicans, Social Security, tax revenue, Taxation

Too Many Disasters?

The Back Story: When the fire crews were pulling out after fighting the Holloway, Ten Mile, and Long Canyon wildland fires in Nevada last August, local residents were invited to take the extra briefing and planning maps of the operations which would otherwise end up as recycled paper.  I picked up three of them.  The Holloway Fire map showed the 461,047 acres burned, the Long Canyon map shows another 36,904 acres burned over. [Inci]

The local community hall had been transformed into a command center complete with a “business office” situated in one corner with account clerks, management, billing, and procurement personnel all crammed around crowded folding tables.  A mapping center was located in the center of the room, capable of creating large maps with updated information showing the extent of the burn, roads and fences,  along detailed locations of ranch buildings, homes, and other edifices.  Heavy equipment rumbled into town by the convoy.

The meeting room became the “check in” site, for crews and equipment coming in from Idaho, Oregon, Montana, and other units from around the country.  The storage room was pressed into service as the meeting room for the coordination between and among the various crews.  Everything from crew camping areas, a portable helicopter port, radio and communications services, to food service was coordinated for some 800+ firefighters in a building designed to handle events for a village of some 200 people.

What the National Interagency Fire Center coordinated was essentially a town within a village, a town the sole purpose of which was to fight a threatening wildfire complex.

Yes, there were local resources available — all three fire fighting vehicles we had were in use; when the Ten Mile fire threatened to turn west toward the town county volunteer fire fighting crews and equipment for structure fires were on hand.  We provided some of the water used; the NIFC keeping very careful records of pumping — for which the local GID was paid.  However, please bear in mind we could have thrown all the crews and trucks we had at the fire complex and still have been totally swamped by the incident.  800 firefighters could have cleaned off our local grocery store shelves in a day.



The News: Why recount this “old news?”  Because in the wake of the disaster on the East Coast caused by Hurricane Sandy there are still those who from the comfort of their think tanks who argue that we’re allocating far too many of our national resources on national disasters.

One argument holds that we have “too many” national disasters.  The central tenet is “… emergency and disaster response should be, as much as possible, pushed down to the state and local level. A national effort should be reserved for truly catastrophic events. Indeed this preference for “local first, national second” can be found in the legislation authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency.”  [NYT]   To wit one might say, yes and what’s your point?  If incidents like wildland fires and hurricanes can be handled at the local level they will be.  However, a half million acre fire or a super storm covering the eastern U.S. from Georgia to Maine, surely are events falling neatly into the “national disaster” categorization.

The argument quickly gets mired in quantitative nit picking.  When is a wildland fire too big to require coordinated management? How much flooding does there have to be before activities of  the Red Cross, the  National Guard and coordination with the Army Corps of Engineers are in order?  How many states must a hurricane pass through before it’s a national problem, or will the devastation of coastal and  central Florida be sufficient to pass the “national disaster” test?

The Heritage Foundation takes the quantification argument a step further.  Look, says the graphic, we are declaring too many events as national disasters — look at the numbers:

Wow, look at all those “new” national emergencies!  Whoa. A bit of history is in order.  Note that after 1993 the number of fires increases in the total. There’s a reason for that, which is explained in the history of the National Interagency Fire Center:

“The Boise Interagency Fire Center (BIFC) was created in 1965 because the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and National Weather Service saw the need to work together to reduce the duplication of services, cut costs, and coordinate national fire planning and operations. The National Park Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs joined BIFC in in the mid 1970s. The US Fish and Wildlife Service later joined in 1979. The Center’s name was changed in 1993 from the Boise Interagency Fire Center to the National Interagency Fire Center to more accurately reflect its national mission. The US Fire Administration-FEMA joined NIFC in 2003.”

Therefore, the more agencies involved in the coordination of forest and wildland fire fighting the more declarations of fire emergencies there will be simply because the number of jurisdictions included — for the sake of not duplicating or squabbling over resources — has been increased.  This explains the fact that fire management events were not included before 1965.

The other bit of mental gymnastics required to make the localization or privatization argument work stems from tightly controlling the definition of a disaster:

“The most efficient role for the federal government is to fill in where states cannot, for example, where the damage is of such a nature that it is not amenable to state or local solutions. Hurricane damage typically is localized, and requires a street-by-street response which the federal government is ill prepared to provide. A large oil spill, by contrast, is not capable of local relief alone, and that is where federal coordination can be most effective.”  [NYT]

Where did that “hurricane damage typically is localized” conception come from?  Hurricane Isaac wandered around Louisiana and Arkansas, Tropical Storm Beryl graced Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.  [NOAA]  The oft mentioned Katrina involved Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. There was Andrew in 1992 slamming into Louisiana and Florida.  In 2008 Hurricane Ike caused severe damage in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.  In 2004 Ivan was a memorable experience for residents of Florida and Alabama. [WU]

Yes, some street by street responses are in order.  However, let’s not skip a step here.  In the aftermath of major weather events some has to get the infrastructure going.

WalMart, Home Depot, etc. can’t get bottled water and plywood to anyone until the roads are cleared.  You can’t go street by street until you can find the streets.  The city of Hoboken, New Jersey found that it’s local equipment was completely inadequate to get to some 20,000 stranded people, and has requested and received assistance from the National Guard.  [NJ.com] Purchasing industrial sized high wheeled vehicles isn’t practical for most small cities and towns.  The U.S. Army and National Guard has such equipment, and the situation in Hoboken is precisely why national assets can be usefully applied to local situations.

Yes, local power companies assist each other during weather related outages.  However, what the think tank tinkerers seem to have missed is that the Department of Homeland Security has worked with the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (among others)  to produce the National Response Plan (pdf) and the roles of NGO’s and private corporations are discussed beginning on page 24.

As mentioned in a previous post, the National Interagency Fire Center had pre-positioned resources available to address fire events in northern Nevada based on information from the National Weather Service, the Department of Agriculture, and other agencies which had been monitoring the potential for wildland fires well before the summer of 2012.  This is relevant because some coordination is necessary to put the infrastructure restoration in process for other kinds of weather related disasters — flooding, tropical storms, and hurricanes. Coordinating information between power companies and the NOAA is essential if private sector companies and public utilities are to effectively plan for emergency operations.

The second major theme of the localization/privatization crowd is that the federal government already recognizes the need for locally managed response operations.  Indeed, this is one of the main features of the National Response Plan cited above.  So, what?

If an emergency can be managed at the local level it should be.  However, as demonstrated above major wildland fires, and major tropical storms and hurricanes aren’t local events.   And, even if they are localized to some extent, such as hurricanes affecting only the state of Florida, this doesn’t mean that local resources are sufficient to address the needs of the population. Nor does this mean that local administration and resources aren’t themselves victims of the event.

Secondly, this argument implies that FEMA and other federal resources are superseding rather than coordinating local and state emergency responses.  Wrong again.  Someone must have missed this memo from the Department of Homeland Security last June:

“Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano today announced the final allocations for seven FY 2012 Preparedness Grant programs, totaling more than $1.3 billion to assist states, urban areas, tribal and territorial governments, non-profit agencies, and the private sector in strengthening our nation’s ability to prevent, protect, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks, major disasters and other emergencies in support of the National Preparedness Goal (NPG). In FY 2012, DHS preparedness grants were reduced by nearly $1 billion from the FY 2011 enacted level and $1.5 billion below the President’s FY 2012 request.”

That’s right — federal dollars to states, urban areas, tribal and territorial governments, non-profits, and the private sector to help them (those local governments and local agents) to help them better handle emergency situations.  Included in those grants were funds for the Emergency Management Performance Grants (EMPG) Program – providing more than $339 million to assist state and local governments in enhancing and sustaining all-hazards emergency management capabilities. [DHS]

Far from discouraging the preparedness of local officials and agencies, the federal government is actively promoting their capacity to handle what they can.

A third problem with the localization argument as presented by opponents of federal activity and those promoting the privatization of emergency services is that the focus is almost exclusively on FEMA.   The first thing out of most of the conservative mouthpieces is that FEMA didn’t perform well in — Hurricane Katrina.   We can take that for granted.  The agency at the time, that would be the Bush Administration, was headed by an unqualified person and bereft of the resources necessary to tackle the job. The conservative argument become circuitous: The agency failed, therefore all federal emergency management must fail, thus proving privatization is preferable.

No. It doesn’t prove that at all. All that’s proven is that FEMA was a mess under the previous conservative administration.  Additionally, to cite FEMA as the all purpose whipping boy is to ignore the other efforts by the Department of Homeland Security to facilitate local responses, assist local communities and utilities with pre-disaster planning, and to coordinate federal and private sector responses to natural and man made disasters.

That FEMA operations will have some glitches is reasonable given that the agency’s most obvious functions are highlighted during times of extreme stress.  However, the privatization crowd would gleefully cite individual instances of mis-applied efforts to argue that the totality of the operations are failures.  The most rarefied academic response proposing privatization sounds like this:

“Put simply, if FEMA continues to centrally plan the economies of disaster areas, it is bound to fail. Economists from Adam Smith to Friedrich Hayek to Milton Friedman have stressed the inherent problems in central planning.” [NYT]

Who is  “centrally planning the economies…?”  In fact, the operations of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security sound remarkably like the prescription from the privateers: “Government disaster response should focus on: restoring law and order and protecting the life and property of citizens; providing emergency services; and quickly restoring infrastructure to open the channels of trade.” [NYT]  Translation – prevent looting and lawlessness, provide emergency public services, and get the infrastructure up and running.  In what fantasy world does FEMA, or any other coordinating  local or state agency, not attempt to do these things?

The greatest disaster would be one in which we fall prey to the siren song of privateers who would protect the carried interest income of the wealthiest among us while advocating that state and local governments attempt to cope with natural and man made disasters on their own.  Worse still would be the effect of allowing price gouging and rampant local inflation perpetrated by the unscrupulous upon the un-protected during emergency situations.

That would be one disaster too many.

* and we haven’t even touched on the probability that given the advance of climate change the weather will be ever more unpredictable and extreme, but that’s a post for another day.

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Compounding A Disaster

There’s a place for ideology in the spectrum of political thought.  However, it’s NOT in the midst of a disaster zone.   There are people in Middlesex County, NJ who will be waiting for electricity until next Monday; friends called about an hour ago — they are OK, and counting themselves lucky the storm damage didn’t take out more than just the railings on their deck.  There are people around this part of the country who are looking at the brown and blackened remains of range fires which consumed more than a half million acres in the region in August.  We’ve something in common.  Disaster management is not best organized on the local level.   Nothing so well wipes out mythology than wind, water, and fire.

# Myth Number One:  Local government is best able to manage disasters. Wrong.  (1) Local disaster relief assets, including local government operations like the sheriff’s department, police officers, and fire departments are staffed and equipped to handle local emergencies.  A fire such as the Holloway blaze which consumed some 461,000 acres, including vast  acreage  in Humboldt County, Nevada was completely beyond the capacity of local volunteer fire departments to manage.  Nor should we imagine that the law enforcement and public safety officials in Middlesex County, New Jersey are able to cope with all the needs in their country associated with coping with the damage from Hurricane Sandy.

It should also be noted that local disaster management can only be accomplished IF the assets aren’t themselves subject to the disaster.  It doesn’t take too long a junket down memory lane to recall the situations in which the local police and fire departments found themselves during Hurricane Katrina and the related flooding.

On the best days, local disaster management and assets are part of the total response, but the idea that a local sheriff’s department or local firefighting department could “manage” all the communication, logistic, and personnel  involved in a major catastrophe is pure fantasy.  What would we think of a local Emergency Management division telling FEMA officials where to pre-position equipment and supplies?  Surely the decisions are made with local input, but having New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, and Rhode Island all “determining” the positioning of assets and supplies is asking for chaos and not coordination in advance of Sandy’s landfall.

(2) States may coordinate some public safety needs but the idea that situations the magnitude of the Holloway Fire or Hurricane Sandy can be addressed by state and local officials is ludicrous.  (a)   Again, consider the potential for mis-allocation of resources if all the states involved in Hurricane Sandy’s path were to position them on their own, and not in coordination with their neighbors.  (b) Consider the problem of determining which state would share what with whom? And, when? (c) Consider the question of how to coordinate disaster management and relief operation if states not immediately involved are not subject to federal management plans?  FEMA can authorize the pre-clearance of power company resources for use in restoring electricity to areas affected by disasters.  Power crews from around the country will be available to the East Coast — compliments of federal coordination. Similarly, fire crews from at least five western states were available to fight the Holloway Fire — and they were ready thanks to planning by the National Interagency Fire Center which does long term forecasts and had already determined that northern Nevada, because of weather, natural vegetation growth, and drought conditions was ripe for major fires.

# Myth Number Two:  Localizing or privatizing emergency management is always better than federal government interference.  Wrong.   The “private is always better” component of the conservative ideology is a lovely ethereal academic argument.  It doesn’t work when the wind hits the beach or the fire touches dry brush.   If capitalism works, and the profit motive is the core of personal incentive toward productivity — then where is the profit in coping with emergency shelters? Firefighting? Distribution of drinking water? Patrolling devastated areas?  Coordinating the restoration of power?

There is a profit to be made if individuals are to be charged for the cost of the emergency management services.  Unthinkable.  Or, there is a profit to be made if the costs of providing these services are billed to state and local governments.  Why pay any amount above the actual cost of the services?

All that is accomplished in a billing for services system is that the taxpayers are called upon to pay not only for the emergency management services provided but also a margin of profit for the companies providing those services.  This seems like a most cynical form of corporate welfare.

And all this is why Governor Romney’s proposal to cut disaster relief is so horribly out of touch:

“We cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we’ll all be dead and gone before it’s paid off. It makes no sense at all.” [BusInsid]

He was talking about disaster relief.  He is touching upon Rep. Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) notion that any disaster relief appropriations should be offset by cuts in other non-defense discretionary spending.  It would be sad if it weren’t so silly.

For a party which continually tries to frame revenue and spending in terms of a family budget this doesn’t pass the laugh test.  According to the conservative ideology, families are supposed to plan and save for exigent circumstances.  However, when a government plans for and appropriates funding for disaster relief that’s somehow wasteful?

There’s nothing immoral about planning for natural disasters and their consequences, but there is something immoral about suggesting that it is not the place of our national government to offer protection and provide the necessities of life to our fellow citizens in times like these.

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Filed under 2012 election, conservatism, Disasters, FEMA, Republicans, Romney