How Prepared is the Budget for a Disaster?

by Craig Jennings, 8/29/2011

In the past week, the East Coast saw two natural disasters, both of which were thankfully much less destructive than they otherwise could've been. These disasters do, however, remind us that the federal government plays major roles in preparation, information dissemination, emergency response, and recovery aid for natural disasters and provide people with the assistance they need and expect when catastrophe strikes.

On Tuesday (Aug.23), an earthquake shook the eastern seaboard. The epicenter was some 80 miles south of DC, but it was felt from North Carolina to Boston. It was the most powerful earthquake to strike the region in a 100 years, yet no one was killed and total damage was very light. Thanks to the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) National Earthquake Information Center, I learned-along with a host of other anxious people on the sidewalks of Connecticut Avenue, within minutes, that I had just experienced a 5.8 magnitude earthquake, not a terrorist attack, so calm prevailed. And when the quake struck, the North Anna nuclear power station, located close to the epicenter, shut down almost immediately. Soon after, inspectors from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) were at the plant looking for possible damage.

A few days later, Hurricane Irene made landfall on North Carolina and bounced up the East Cost all the way to Vermont. Because the National Weather Service's National Hurricane Center has access to satellites, radar, aircraft, scientists, and dedicated civil servants, residents in the path of the storm had plenty of time to evacuate. During the storm, the USGS was measuring tidal surges to help measure damage, and the Coast Guard was standing by for rescue missions.

Irene was, unfortunately, a lot more destructive than the earthquake. Thirty-two lives have been lost and damage stretches all the way up the coast from North Carolina to Vermont, where severe flooding is likely to cause continued damage. Estimates for damage are -- so far -- around $7 billion. In the wake of this disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Small Business Administration will help families and businesses affected by the storm to recover. The Farm Service Agency will help farmers whose crops were destroyed. And the USGS will test water in affected areas for pesticides and other dangers, like E. coli.

The events of the last week have demonstrated that without the services of these federal agencies, we'd have seen more lives lost. For those communities impacted by the disasters, the road to recovery would be a lot longer. Yet deficit hysteria and government shrinking conservatives are putting these kinds of public protections and services at risk. The steep budget cuts required by the debt ceiling deal have yet to take effect, but the FY 2011 budget cuts are already being felt. There have been nine disasters with losses greater than $1 billion so far in 2011, representing a total loss of $35 billion. FEMA's disaster relief fund has dwindled, causing that agency to suspend some aid for the Joplin, MO tornado recovery. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator Jane Lubchenco recently noted that funding reductions could delay the replacement of a weather satellite, which would "result in some degradation in hurricane track and intensity forecasts in the important 3-5 day coastal evacuation planning period."

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) is demanding that any emergency disaster relief be offset with spending cuts in other areas of the budget. However, shifting funds from transportation programs will degrade our infrastructure, hindering emergency vehicle access. Moving money out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will slow our response to a flu pandemic. Taking money away from Census will reduce our ability to know who would be hit in a future disaster. Cutting nutrition programs will cause a slow-motion disaster among low-income families. Disaster response rests on a multidimensional platform of public structures. It involves both long-term planning and near-term action, the balance of which must be continuously maintained in order to be effective. Deep funding cuts in these structures weaken our ability to confront the unforeseen and ultimately harm the nation.

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