Pell Center

The Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina is a multidisciplinary research center focused at the intersection of politics, policies and ideas.

The FEMA Debate: Hurricane Sandy Raises Questions about FEMA’s Role

Since Hurricane Sandy’s departure from the East Coast of the United States, 6.6 million people in 15 states and the District of Columbia are still without electricity—1.9 million New Yorkers alone are without power. All of the sights and sounds of The Big Apple—the subways, the trains, the city’s skyline—are either submerged underwater or shut off.

In light of the hurricane’s aftermath, there have been discussions about how the federal government and state governments should handle emergency aid with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

According to FEMA’s website, the organization’s mission “is to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards.”

Former FEMA Director James Lee Witt, who worked at FEMA from 1993 to 2001, believes FEMA is necessary when a state government’s resources need additional assistance to repair damage, provide shelter to victims, and other disaster relief protocols. FEMA should be available to provide aid to governors who request it, Republican or Democrat, but in no way should FEMA replace the role of local aid operations.

Lee Witt says “when a state is overwhelmed, or a disaster involves several states, FEMA supports – but never replaces – the local response.”

Having a resourced to support affected communities in need of disaster relief makes sense, but some argue that FEMA aid is abused. The Department of Homeland Security reported that $643 million had been “wrongly distributed” to 160,000 homes affected by Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita in 2005.

Russell S. Sobel of The Citadel urges the federal government to focus on maintaining law and order instead of providing immediate aid and extended assistance—Sobel believes the private sector and local aid provided by churches and other private nonprofits can do a better job coordinating disaster relief programs.

“After a disaster, government is and must be a productive and important part of the process — just as it is every day in our economy — by ensuring the presence of the two things decentralized markets need to work effectively: unregulated prices and secure property rights,” says Sobel.

Overall, it can be concluded that most politicians and analysts agree that FEMA must be in place, but the extent to which it is used to still needs to be clarified.

Lee Witt and Sobel are part of The New York Times debate, “Do We Really Need FEMA?” To read the full articles of their opinions (and others), please click here.


2012 Election Update: Obama has cancelled his presidential campaigning for the past three days to focus on Hurricane Sandy. He visited the FEMA department in Washington D.C. and plans to visit Atlantic City, N.J. to see the damage with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Romney and Ryan’s stances on state-reliant disaster relief and cutting FEMA budgets by 60% are still under scrutiny by the public.

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