UPDATE: Since this post was originally written Brock Long was confirmed by FEMA.
Yesterday, June 1st, was the start of the Atlantic Hurricane season. As there is each year, there was some press about how prepared we are to respond to a hurricane. Some journalist, correctly, wondered what our state of preparedness is under the Trump administration, particular how FEMA is running.
It is in this context that NPR ran a story with the headline "Disaster Agency To Weather Hurricane Season With No Leader, Proposed Cuts".
Half of this headline is false, the second half is true.
Here's the situation. Craig Fugate, the super qualified FEMA administrator during the Obama administration, stepped down when Obama left office (as planned before the Nov. election). In his place, Bob Fenton, a longtime FEMA employee, stepped up to fill the role until Trump appointed a new FEMA administrator. FEMA has responded to several presidentially declared disasters since November and overall the response from FEMA was similar to what we would have seen under Fugate/ Obama. Again, Bob Fenton is an experienced emergency manager so this is not surprising.
Recently, Trump announced he would appoint Brock Long to be the next FEMA administrator. Unlike many other recent appointees to agencies across the federal government (I am looking directly at you Rick Perry and Ben Carson), Long has a substantial emergency management resume. I do not know him but I haven't heard any major complaints. We are currently waiting for the Senate to confirm his appointment.
So, we do have an acting administrator. If it makes anyone feel better I personally feel comfortable going into hurricane season with Fenton in charge. I do want to stress though, that the FEMA administrator is one person and they actually don't have as much influence over a response as you probably think they do. A lot of other people and organizations have to do a whole bunch of stuff right for a response to a hurricane to be seen as effective and efficient. It's the "lots of other people and stuff" that is going to be the problem during the next hurricane.
This is not to say that everything at FEMA, and with emergency management more broadly, is going fine. I have major concerns. You can follow me on twitter for daily updates on what is keeping me up at night. For now, I've elaborated on three major funding issues that we need to pay attention to (CALL YOUR REPS AND TELL THEM NOT TO CUT FEMA/ HUD FUNDING).
In my opinion, in the short-term, we need to be much more concerned with the proposed budget cuts from the White House. The NPR article outlines the major cuts:
"Under that budget, a program that helps states and communities take long-term measures to reduce losses from disasters, the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program, has been cut by more than 60 percent."
To translate, this means that they want the funding that communities use to lessen their risks ahead of time (mitigation) is being dramatically cut. The elimination of this funding essentially guarantees more severe damage and an increased cost of recovery. Research has shown that for ever $1 spent on mitigation a community saves $4 in recovery.
"The budget also eliminates funding for an ongoing effort to improve and redraw the nation's flood maps."
Currently, FEMA runs a program that maps all the areas across the country that are at risk of flooding. For obvious reasons, it is important for individuals, homeowners, local officials, business owners, and basically everyone to know if the land they own is at risk of flooding. Sure, if you live right next to the ocean your flood risk is probably pretty obvious but because of development, variations in topography, and severe meteorological events, there are plenty of areas where the flood risk is less obvious. Recent examples of this include many communities that flooded last year in Baton Rouge, LA and Houston, TX. If you know your property is at risk of flooding then you can do something about it (e.g., elevate your house, buy flood insurance, build somewhere else, etc). If you know large parts of your community have a high risk of flooding you can implement buy-out programs, implement land use policies, build flood infrastructure like levees, etc. (Though this will become even more difficult than it already is if the funding for the aforementioned mitigation grant program is cut).
One other important point to note about the effects of eliminating the flood mapping program is that this data is the foundation for providing flood insurance policies through the National Flood Insurance Program. This is a very big problem. (I have another blog post coming on NFIP that I've been promising for like 6 months but it's a really complicated topic and I'm trying to make it eloquently fit into a readable length and not a book.)
A third source of funding that is vital to emergency management that the White House wants to cut is the Community Development Block Grants located within HUD. As NPR writes, "The Trump budget cuts that $3 billion fund to zero." This funding is critical to communities that need to recover from disasters.
The cuts and elimination of these three programs alone are devastating for our ability to mitigate, prepare, and recover from disasters. As we enter hurricane season I am most concerned about these budget cuts, not about who is FEMA admin.