Hurricane Blues

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The song “Hurricane Blues” is presented in the key of G in a traditional 12 bar blues format using old school blues instrumentation – the Dobro and harmonica – combined with non-traditional instruments.  This unusual combination of instruments results in a unique orchestral feel that forcefully drives the song’s musical portrayal of the horrific beauty and fury of a hurricane.  The lyrics describe the process one goes through when caught in the path of this powerful force of nature, a frightening experience that will be familiar to those who have lived in coastal areas.

Hurricanes have impacted mankind for centuries.  The word hurricane comes from the word hurucane, used by the pre Colombian Tarino culture to mean “evil spirit of the wind.”  Hurricanes are immensely powerful.  A single large hurricane releases the same amount of energy as several atomic bombs.

Hurricanes destroy homes and take lives — sometimes by the thousands.  They are the only natural weather event devastating enough to deserve their own names, and they are predictable enough to have their own season.  In the Atlantic Ocean, Hurricane Season runs from June 1st to November 30th.

The financial cost for damages resulting from a single hurricane can now exceed 50 billion dollars.  We all pay that bill in one way or another, and we can expect the costs to increase in the future because:

1) Compared to inland areas, coastal areas continue to experience the greatest population and infrastructure growth, thus the devastation wrought by hurricanes is far more costly in both human and property terms.

2) Government waste, incompetent management, and corruption are increasing, and “Relief Bills” that rightly are brought forward to aid those in need instead are misused by  politicians to divert money to people or businesses for “pork projects” that buy off their constituents.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was coincidentally implemented on April 1, 1979 — a day widely recognized and celebrated as April Fool’s Day or All Fools Day.  The agency’s primary purpose is to coordinate the federal response to a disaster that has occurred and that overwhelms the resources of local and state authorities.  It seems, however, that this April Fool’s joke is one being played on American taxpayers.

The federal government pays 75 – 100 percent of disaster response bills provided that FEMA has issued a disaster declaration. The disaster in question must be “of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and the affected local governments, and that Federal assistance is necessary.” This financial threshold is reached “when a state’s storm-related damages reach $1.29 per capita, [which] for several states that is less than $1 million in damages.”  It is an easily satisfied standard that unfortunately provides unscrupulous politicians frequent opportunities to misuse federal funds.  Disturbingly, while these funds were collected at the expense of all American taxpayers, they benefit only a handful of states that frequently experience natural disasters.  In other words, whether or not you were hit by a hurricane, your wallet was.

Disaster response should be driven by state and local governments because they house most of the response resources and they are the first on the scene when disaster strikes.  It is only fair that those who knowingly choose to locate their home and businesses in harm’s way bear at least a greater share of the funds necessary to provide disaster relief.  Further, politically, federal funding for disaster relief efforts encourages state and local government in natural disaster-prone areas to be apathetic because they know that the federal government will bail them out.

The disaster abuse is not just for politicians.  While politicians may be in it for billions of dollars, others “merely” seek millions of dollars, and some just want a free TV or other household appliance…or two…or three.  A South Florida newspaper, the Sun Sentinel, documented criticisms of FEMA during the four hurricanes that hit the region in 2004.  Some of the criticisms included:

  • When Hurricane Frances hit Florida, FEMA inappropriately declared Miami-Dade County a disaster area and then awarded millions, often without verifying storm damage or a need for assistance.  The hurricane hit over 100 miles north of Miami-Dade County, however, thousands of applicants were approved by FEMA for $21 million in storm claims for new furniture, household appliances, and a funeral even though the Medical Examiner recorded no deaths from Frances.
  • The state’s coroners have concluded that FEMA used hurricane aid money to pay funeral expenses for at least 203 Floridians whose deaths were not caused by the 2004 hurricanes. Ten of those funerals were for people who were not even in Florida.

For every occurrence of a hurricane, we seem to have examples of bad management, waste or corruption:

  • In July 2007, ice that had been ordered for Katrina victims but had never been used was melted down after being kept in storage facilities at a cost of $12.5 million.  Rest assured, someone got rich on that ice.
  • In June 2008, a CNN investigation found that FEMA, along with the infamous Government Services Administration or GSA, gave to other states about $85 million in household goods and supplies meant for Hurricane Katrina victims who were displaced by the storm and in desperate need of those same supplies.  FEMA spent $2 million storing the supplies. After the media revealed the giveaway, a public outcry ensued and most of the supplies were returned.

Even worse, there’s the political “pork” disaster relief:

  • When presented with the opportunity to pass an emergency relief bill for Hurricane Sandy, did our trusty public servants display organization, preparedness and professionalism?  No, once again they instead behaved like criminals and demonstrated their all too common behavior – fraudulent spending disorder.  Despite the potential for delaying help to those in need, one group of politicians took a legitimate emergency relief bill, stuffed it with their unrelated pet projects, then dared the other group of politicians not to pass it.  Some say that the bill was a blatant attempt to steal as much as $30 billion of disaster relief funds for unrelated pet projects, some of which were thousands of miles away from Hurricane Sandy victims.

This sickening opportunism included “pork” for everything under the sun – from restorations on private lands to cars and equipment for the Justice Department, and from Amtrak to fisheries in Alaska.  All items plainly unrelated to hurricane relief.

And while many politicians focused on their “pet projects” that would benefit those who didn’t even get rained on when the storm hit, the people who really needed help were without homes and left to their own devices.  Why?  Because there were so many hands in the cookie jar that the cookie jar never made it to many of the people with genuine needs.

So, why doesn’t the media “out” the individual politicians who originated the self serving legislation?  It should be easy enough to identify the “pork projects” and tie them to the culprits who tried to abuse the legislative process despite the risk of delaying or denying help to those in need.  We can’t continue to allow this to happen.  There will be other disasters.  There will be more hurricanes.  We can’t continue to elect opportunistic politicians who attempt to rape the American people with shady appropriations after every natural disaster.  If we stop that political behavior, we’ll eventually eliminate our big budget deficit, and we’ll all be much better off.

In theory, “practice makes perfect”, so we should be really good at responding to hurricane related disasters now, right?

Wrong.  Our track record seems to be consistently bad.  FEMA was rightfully criticized for its response to Hurricane Hugo, which landed in South Carolina in September 1989.  In August 1992, Hurricane Andrew struck the Gulf coast and FEMA was again widely (and properly) criticized for its response.  FEMA’s performance was reviewed by the National Academy of Public Administration in its 1993 report “Coping with Catastrophe” which identified several basic areas in Emergency Management and FEMA’s administration that were causes of the failed response.  Many of the same issues that plagued the agency during Hurricane Andrew were also evident during the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.   Katrina was seen as the first major test of the nation’s new disaster response plan under the Department of Homeland Security.  Regrettably, many things did not function as planned and the overall response effort was materially flawed.

We’ve made enough mistakes.  We’ve paid hundreds of billions over the years for lessons.  There are professionals who are trained in “Emergency Response and Preparedness”.  We should have Preparedness Plans in place along with well thought out Response Plans.  Communication and coordination between federal, state, and local agencies should be virtually seamless.  Everything should be a well-defined procedure from top to bottom, including the process of appropriating funds.  That’s the way a large organization should work.  Every hurricane should not be followed by a political circus.

However, the contention over the Sandy relief bill vividly illustrates the problems with our current approach to natural disasters.  It also demonstrates our government’s extravagant spending approach and our careless (and ultimately fatal if uncorrected) attitude toward deficits.  Politicians try to exploit loopholes in the Budget Control Act that allows new spending, above existing spending limits, without offsets.  In an era of chronic trillion-dollar deficits, this is another act of willful fiscal negligence.  And it’s also just plain bad management.

Our debt is growing every day.  We have reached a point in our history that we can no longer afford anything we want.  We will soon be a country that cannot pay its bills if we do not control our unbridled spending and manage our existing resources intelligently while we can.  Congress should eliminate the wasteful spending associated with hurricane response by taking the following actions:

  • The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) has needed several previous bailouts because it is a poorly managed program.  However, funds will be needed to pay benefits to hurricane victims who have paid premiums for this coverage.  Congress should thoroughly review and make changes to the NFIP in preparation of having private-sector companies take over its functions to the greatest extent possible.
  • There is a financial problem created by the ease of qualifying for federal disaster dollars.  In less than two years, FEMA issued 353 disaster declarations, and there were only two hurricanes.  No other two-year period comes close to this level of disaster declarations.  The reality is that if FEMA had conserved its resources for events such as Hurricane Sandy, it would have ample funds available in the Disaster Relief Fund for the response and recovery.  This legislative problem should be corrected.  In addition, some form of budget offsets should be used.  Emergency relief should not be exploited as a method to obtain new spending authorizations without budget offsets.  If budget offsets were required to offset emergency relief spending, then review and approval of emergency relief funds would be more rigorous and focused on actual “emergency relief”.
  • In business, a spending request to deal with a current crisis is not the appropriate vehicle to propose new spending projects that are plainly unrelated to the crisis.  In other words, no Alaskan fisheries should be built with hurricane “relief” funds intended for the East Coast.  Emergency relief funding procedures should reflect this.
  • Similarly, all requests for funding for federal departments and agencies that are not intended directly for response and recovery activities of states, businesses, or citizens should not be included in disaster relief funding.  Funds for federal departments and agencies to repair or replace federal assets are a separate matter and should be handled with existing budgets or placed in the upcoming budget after a more thorough prioritization of those funding requests.  In other words, no funding Guantanamo Bay facilities, repairing Federal roofs in DC, or Amtrak facilities that weren’t hit by the hurricane.
  • Open-ended requests or “blank checks” should not be included in emergency response. Some of the items in the Sandy funding request lacked the necessary thoroughness that is typical of spending appropriations. For instance, the proposed Sandy legislation sought $200 million for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to be used at the discretion of its Secretary.  It does not take an MBA degree to figure out this type of appropriation is an open invitation to wasteful spending.
  • Modify the Stafford Act – our current legislation governing disaster relief funding – to streamline emergency funding procedures.  As the test for justifying federal disaster dollars, the Stafford Act fails to provide adequate financial controls.  Congress should review and amend the Act to limit the types of situations in which declarations can be issued and eliminate some types of disasters entirely from FEMA’s portfolio.  In addition, for the reasons set out above, the majority of the costs of a disaster should be borne by the taxpayers living where the disaster took place.  For catastrophes that overwhelm state governments, a provision could be written to allow a higher federal cost-share where the total costs of the disaster exceed the state’s ability to pay.  Procedures should be in place to fund emergency relief without funding unrelated “pet projects” or other political pork.
  • We should improve FEMA’s ability to provide emergency shelter and temporary housing by coordinating this effort closely with coastal states affected by hurricanes.  Past relief efforts have wasted millions simply as a result of poor planning and coordination.
  • Improve the number, training and readiness of disaster relief responders.  Past reviews of Department of Homeland Security and FEMA have identified a lack of adequate trained and experienced staff for emergency response, in addition to inadequate readiness.  Training is a fundamental requirement for implementing an emergency response and preparedness strategy.
  • Improve FEMA logistics and contracting systems.  The lack of sufficiently trained procurement professionals did not support a sustained provision of commodities needed for an adequate disaster response.  There are certain basic response materials and services that are standard necessities for every hurricane response effort.  Those basic response materials and contract services should be in place in advance, and coordinated with each state as a part of preparedness planning.

The combination of these inadequate staffing, training, and organizational structures made FEMA’s string of recent failed performances inevitable.  Equally, inadequate legislation and a lack of professional procedures for unbudgeted emergency funding approvals on the congressional level results in enormous wasteful spending and makes appropriation abuse inevitable.  These have become our textbook responses.  We desperately need to re-write this book.

Hurricane Season occurs every year.  If we would train and prepare for it with the winning determination and professionalism we invest in any of our favorite American pastimes — like football season — we could turn hurricane disasters into testaments to our ability to prepare for and respond to the most difficult of moments.  No more hurricanes followed by political circuses, disappointing responses, and wasteful spending.  Pass it on.

 

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