Floodplain Managers Call for an Independent FEMA

March 6, 2009
The Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM) recommends that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) be restored to its former independent-agency status, with direct access to the president.

Association members believe this step is necessary to ensure that the agency is “nimble and effective” in fulfilling the four key elements of a successful multi-hazard policy: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. In a news release, the association says, “An independent and reinvigorated FEMA is essential to the nation’s public safety and economic security as we encounter the expected increase in natural disasters that will accompany population growth and intensified development within at-risk areas, as well as possible impacts from a changing climate.”

ASFPM which has 13,000 members and 27 state chapters, notes that FEMA had, and will continue to have, access to other agency resources under Title IV – Sections 402 and 403 of the Stafford Act. Although some have speculated that making FEMA a stand-alone agency would result in the loss of resources and capabilities – such as search and rescue, communications, law enforcement, intelligence and infrastructure protection – that it receives through Homeland Security, is not accurate.

State members to ASFPM are appointed by their state governors to manage flood risk reduction programs in their respective states as well as coordinate the administration of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Members long have been concerned about the ramifications of FEMA’s inclusion in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The ASFPM Board of Directors twice has passed resolutions calling for independent status for FEMA or, at a minimum, increased autonomy within DHS.

Association members feel that before it was absorbed into DHS, FEMA had developed the capacity for flexibility and well-coordinated, genuine give-and-take partnerships with states and localities. These factors also allowed the FEMA of the 1990s to develop well-conceived programs promoting mitigation for all the natural hazards – the flooding, severe storms, hurricanes, earthquakes, drought, tornadoes and other events that occur week in and week out somewhere in the nation. Such mitigation programs seek to permanently break the disaster cycle of damage/rebuild/damage, thus saving recovery and repair costs (that ultimately are borne by taxpayers) and also reducing economic disruption due to disasters.

“Sadly, since FEMA’s inclusion in the new DHS in 2002, many things have changed,” according to the association. “We have witnessed a distinct loss of effectiveness on the part of FEMA, diminished agency morale and a hobbled capacity to perform its mission. The critical role DHS plays in protecting the nation from terrorism unfortunately has had the effect of diverting significant attention and human and financial resources away from the threat of natural disasters, which are occurring with increasing frequency and intensity.”

Association members claim that slowdowns due to the added layers of the large DHS bureaucracy have increased dramatically, both at FEMA headquarters and in its regional offices. “This unfortunate reality has seriously affected rule making and policy development as well as the administration of grant programs for mitigating damage and taking regulatory action. Ripple effects are evident in state and local emergency management, public safety and disaster mitigation capacities.”

After the “wake-up call” of the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes, association members acknowledge that DHS did begin to pay more attention to natural disaster preparedness and response. However, members complain that the other two crucial elements of a sound disaster policy – mitigation and recovery – have remained lost in the other activities of DHS. This is despite the release of a report by the National Institute of Building Sciences that documented a 4-to-1 benefit-to-cost ratio for investment in mitigation.

“Restoration of FEMA to independent status, reporting directly to the president, will renew and invigorate the federal government’s capacity to develop policy, support state and local officials, and work effectively with other federal agencies and the Congress in all areas of disaster mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery,” say the flood plain managers.

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