Get in Touch with Your Inner Survivorman? New FEMA Head Encourages It

The new head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, former Florida firefighter and state disaster coordinator Craig Fugate, says he hopes to steer his organization in a different direction. According to Amanda Ripley’s dispatch in the September issue of The Atlantic, Fugate wants FEMA’s role to be less paternalistic and more modest and collaborative:

“We need to change behavior in this country,” he told about 400 emergency-management instructors at a conference in June, lambasting the “government-centric” approach to disasters. He learned a perverse lesson in Florida: the more the federal government does in routine emergencies, the greater the odds of catastrophic failure in a big disaster. “It’s like a Chinese finger trap,” he told me last spring, as a hailstorm fittingly raged outside his office. If the feds do more, the public, along with state and local officials, do less.

Fugate seems to have at least one ally within the professional disaster-preparedness community. In The Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, former FEMA Regional Director John R. Powers, currently associated with the disaster consulting firm FirTH Alliance, proposes reforms that would complement a reduction of federal disaster paternalism. Among other things, Powers proposes an end to the practice of bailing out homeowners who chose not to insure their property or those who chose not to move out of a designated high-risk area. Writes Powers:

The point of this approach is to force individuals, municipalities and states to stop doing dumb things and accept responsibility for their decisions. The benefits to the tax payers who are subsidizing these bad decisions would be huge.

One wonders how much Fugate and Powers would wager on the prospects for the meaningful decentralization of disaster preparedness and recovery. On the plus side, a growing number of scholars (see, for example, here and here) are learning more about how weak incentives and an ignorance of local conditions and priorities create huge obstacles for public disaster managers, especially at the federal level. In addition, the image of FEMA incompetence before and after Hurricane Katrina still lingers in the public’s consciousness.

But are these ideas and images strong enough to overcome the forces of inertia and opportunism that support federal disaster paternalism?

Fugate might have been told he had plenty of support for reforming FEMA, but it’s hard to see how he could undo the moral hazard caused by previous federal disaster-paternalism. The federal genie is out of the bottle. It would take virtually unimaginable doses of restraint for the President and Congress to resist bailing out future disaster survivors, something that appears very, very unlikely, especially given their recent spree of financial and corporate bailouts. But unless they exercised enormous restraint—and somehow convinced everyone else that they would do so—Fugate’s call for the feds to play a less prominent role in disaster management would lack credibility.

The only realistic hope, I think, is that people will continue to recognize FEMA’s limitations and, as a result, decide to take more responsibility for preparing for and managing disasters.

Fugate, by the way, is invited to speak in at “Out of the Storm ’09: Making Reform Work”—a conference on property insurance reform co-sponsored by the Independent Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, in cooperation with the Louisiana and South Carolina Departments of Insurance, in New Orleans, from September 30 to October 2.

Carl Close is Research Fellow and Senior Editor for The Independent Institute and Assistant Editor of The Independent Review and editor of The Lighthouse, The Independent Institute’s weekly e-mail newsletter.
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