Weaknesses in the U.S. disaster system
Posted on 09 October 2008
I’ve been silent on the blog for a few weeks due to paternity leave.
In my absence, events continued to raise questions about the capability of the U.S. disaster response system. There were criticisms of the response to Hurricane Ike, a report from the GAO that the American Red Cross and other leading nonprofits lack the capacity for a major emergency, and the American Red Cross just received $100 million from Congress to replenish funds for disaster relief.
U.S. disaster response is officially a public-private partnership. It is one of the few instances in which the government officially designates nonprofits to provide support (see the National Response Framework). The lead governmental agency – FEMA – is given authority to coordinate non-governmental groups.
Some major weaknesses that I perceive:
(1) I do not believe there is clarity between what our government views as its responsibility and what it considers the purview of private donations to nonprofits and faith-based groups. The Stafford Act gives permission for the federal government to fund everything from temporary shelter and cash grants to legal aid, food supplies, and home repair. But to whom and to what point? Is the government primarily focused on helping those who have the least resources to support their own recovery, or on everyone – rich or poor – who was affected? Is it their goal to support survivors until they’re able to return to their homes and start clean-up, or get them back to their level of pre-storm living?
The way the Act is structured, federal funding is negotiated on a case-by-case basis with the affected state after each emergency. The government clearly sees itself as the primary supporter of the repair of damaged infrastructure. “People” issues, however, seem to get revisited each time. The danger is that those decisions can become politicized, especially since the funding is budgeted outside the annual appropriations process. Mississippi sustained only half as much damage as Louisiana from hurricane Katrina, but Congress mandated they share almost equally the initial $11.6 billion in CDBG funds for “citizen” long-term recovery (after several more months, Louisiana was successful in advocating for more). Mississippi had a Republican governor and a strong Congressional delegation at the time, with one of its senators (Thad Cochran) chairing the Appropriations Committee.
(2) The nature of fundraising for emergencies is episodic. Nonprofit responders like the American Red Cross reach out to private donors and the general public after each disaster. States and the federal government also negotiate federal grants after each emergency. As emergencies occur more frequently, the ability to rely upon the necessary level of funds through such methods becomes questionable. It also makes very few resources available for disaster preparedness.
(3) FEMA has limited understanding and ability to coordinate the many local nonprofits that will provide extremely important services in any major catastrophe (another GAO finding). As the recent GAO report suggests, and as our Katrina experience demonstrated, a major event will outstrip the capacity of the national nonprofit responders. Local groups will fill the gaps, and since they have local trust and expertise, they can be extremely effective providers. While FEMA assumed the responsibility to coordinate the efforts of these groups after squabbling about it with the American Red Cross during Katrina, the agency has little capacity to do so successfully.
(4) Local groups have very limited capacity and profile to access contributions by donors from outside the affected area. The bulk of disaster donations go to large, high-profile national responders like the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross, while in a major catastrophe, local groups are often first on the scene. During Katrina, for example, many local groups jumped in when they saw the need in their communities, and they did so without worrying whether they had the funds for it. But they don’t have the fund raising capacity to provide such services and make themselves known to a completely new public, and they often struggle to find the funds to pay for their courage.
Improvements since Katrina imply that we simply needed to enhance the efficiency and operations of the system already in place. It’s a centralized approach that is built around a few institutions – FEMA, the American Red Cross, and the national VOAD agencies. This works well for the size of most emergencies, but continues to crack when tasked at a large scale. We seem to think that improving the system means building these institutions big enough and efficient enough to respond to anything.
I find this underlying assumption questionable. I think we need to develop an approach that is decentralized and supple enough to integrate the strengths of hundreds of nonprofits if necessary. I have some ideas for this that I’ll share in a following post. I’d also appreciate comments from those of you who are experienced in providing disaster relief internationally.