Proposed Budget Cuts & Implications for Emergency Management

As someone who cares deeply about emergency management, I have been watching the new administration with great interest. There are some obvious signs for concern like the fact that a FEMA Administrator has yet to be nominated (though Bob Fenton seems to be doing a perfectly fine job). Most recently I have watched with serious concern as White House budget proposal drafts are revealed. Many of these cuts would have a direct, negative effect on our ability to mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recovery from hazard events. It seems useful to explain which programs might suffer and the implications for emergency management. To be clear, this is based on draft proposals. There is still a way to go before any cuts would be implemented. The NY Times indicates there would be strong opposition from politicians on both sides and that veterans of DHS are “befuddled”. Regardless of the final budget, compiling this information demonstrates that those interested in emergency management should not only be concerned with FEMA’s budget. What happens in other agencies across the federal government impacts us too.

The Department of Homeland Security

There seem to be two concerns driving the need to cut programs – terrorism and border security. I realize this is a big ask but for now, just ignore the contradictory goal of keeping us safe by cutting programs that actually keep us safe. Just know that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is central to the entire budget issue because it is the agency tasked with terrorism and border control. According to the NY Times, the budget cuts to programs within DHS is in an effort to shift $5 billion, “toward hiring scores of additional agents for Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as toward infrastructure to support a crackdown on illegal immigration” and building the promised border wall. Disproportional resource allocation within DHS is not a new issue. There seem to be three agencies within the department that look to be shouldering the major cuts. I’ll start with FEMA since it has the most obvious implications for emergency management.

Federal Emergency Management Agency

The bottom line is that Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is looking at an overall 11% budget cut. There are a number of programs within FEMA that are on the chopping block. The NY Times reported that within FEMA they are targeting, “for reduction an array of grants to state and local governments that have helped fund the development of emergency preparedness and response plans for natural disasters and terrorism-related events.” The reporting of the FEMA cuts have not stated the exact programs that may be affected however, I have compiled a list of the following three based on the descriptions provided in the linked sources.  

  • The Counter Violent Extremism Grant Program and Complex Coordinated Attack Training Program – 25% cut
  • Port Transit Security Grant Program – 40% cut
  • Bio-surveillance and Research program - 28% cut

The funding for these programs contributes to resources, training, and staff salaries at a local level. Without federal funding, I personally believe, it is unlikely for state or local governments to take over the financial responsibility. 

Again, the lack of specificity in the reports makes some of this speculation. For example, the Washington Post provided this cryptic sentence about FEMA: “Other programs would require localities and states to contribute a greater share than they do now.” My assumption here is they are referring to Public Assistance that is granted post-disaster to reimburse states and localities for costs incurred during response and to help fund public recovery projects. The Heritage Foundation have argued states should pay 75% of costs up to $5billion instead of the 15% they currently pay. We're not talking incremental changes here. It is worth pointing out that it is only the worst disasters that ever even qualify for such assistance and only when state and local resources truly have been overwhelmed.

One other very serious issue has been raised. NDRC reported that the proposed budget calls for eliminating the floodplain mapping program. This is a very big problem. FEMA oversees the National Flood Insurance Program (which I'm going to address in more detail in a blog post at a later date). Logically, in order to administer a flood insurance program, you need to know what everyone's flood risk is which means mapping all of the floodplains in the United States. That is a very big and complicated responsibility and there's all kinds of problems with the current flood maps (the short of it: a lot of them are wrong) and they need to be updated continuously because flood risks change. The Washington Post reported that homeowners would have a surcharge added to their flood insurance so maybe that would be to cover the cost of floodplain mapping (this is totally a guess). In my opinion, eliminating this program is one of the most reckless suggestions in this proposal. NFIP is up for reauthorization this year and I'm very concerned that this is the canary in the coal mine. 

Nick Crossley's quote in the Washington Post summarizes what I suspect most in emergency management feel about these proposed cuts, “When you propose not just cuts but draconian cuts, your ability to respond to a disaster can cause lives to be lost and property to be damaged,” said Nick Crossley, emergency management director in Hamilton County, Ohio, and first vice president of the International Association of Emergency Managers, which represents 4,000 local officials across the country. He said pouring the money saved from FEMA into border security would be “catastrophic.” “Defense and security at the border are important,” he said. “But you’re damaging the national system that makes us the strongest country when it comes to being prepared for disasters.”

The Coast Guard

Elsewhere in DHS, the Coast Guard is facing a proposed 14% budget cut including “deactivating Maritime Security Response Teams, which carry out counterterrorism patrols in ports and sensitive waterways” according to the Washington Post. One of the many responsibilities of the Coast Guard is that they are first responders to oil and hazardous substance incidents. Cutting the already struggling Coast Guard budget limits our capacity to do search and rescue, maintain security at our ports, and respond to oil spills. On top of this, they are also looking to cut regulations over the industries that cause these incidents which means they are minimizing our capacity to respond while simultaneously increasing our risk.

TSA

The TSA is of course tasked with the responsibility of airport security. They are facing an 11% cut that includes “a program that trains pilots to respond to an attempted armed takeover of the cockpit; a grant program that supports local law enforcement patrols at airports; and another, the Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response program, that sends both undercover and highly visible officers to conduct security sweeps in high-risk airports and train stations.” The implications for emergency management here are obvious. It is no secret that TSA’s effectiveness has been questioned. The way to address that, however, is not to undermine them by providing fewer resources but rather work with them to provide funding, research, and leadership to increase their effectiveness. 

Department of Housing & Urban Development

Reports claim the Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) administered by HUD will be cut entirely. I am running under the assumption that this includes the CDBG Disaster Recovery program. When a community is undergoing disaster recovery they often use and depend on funding from the CDBG Disaster Recovery Program. This money not only directly helps the community rebuild what was lost but also provides indirect benefits such as integrating mitigation into recovery efforts to prevent damages in the future and helps reinvigorate the local economy.

Another point of concern for emergency management are the proposed 32% cuts to funding for major repairs of public housing (which is already backlogged). Public housing is often built in already vulnerable areas and houses people who tend to be more vulnerable to disasters. Failing to address these repairs not only increases the physical vulnerability of these buildings but also raises concerns about the buildings becoming hazards themselves. A cascading effect of cutting HUD’s budget is the likelihood of increasing the homelessness rate. In disasters, people who are experiencing homelessness can be among the most vulnerable. The Washington Post has a great piece providing more detail on the cuts to HUD.

The Environmental Protection Agency

Perhaps the best way of saying this is that there is no good news for the EPA. The proposal cuts the budget by $2 billion and cuts the agency's staff by 1/5. To be honest, considering the hostility towards the EPA during the campaign, from Republicans in general, and Scott Pruitt, I am a little surprised it is not more. The proposal calls for the elimination of 38 programs and cuts research funding by 42%. Overall 69% of the agency's spending on climate change would be cut and maliciously the environmental justice programs would be cut by 78%. These cuts to the EPA demonstrate a complete disregard for the environment, are anti-science, and racist. They diminish our response capacity, put our national security at risk, increase the likelihood of hazardous events not only now but for future generations around the world. You can find a complete list of programs that would be cut here

National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration

The proposed cuts to NOAA are among some of the most devastating with serious implications for emergency management. These cuts specifically target programs that minimize risk, prepare coastal communities to a number of hazards, and specifically help with climate change adaptation. The Washington Post reports, that these cuts “could put coastal communities throughout the nation at a major disadvantage as they struggle to adapt to threats from sea-level rise, severe storms, and other climate-related events.”

  • Coastal Zone Management Grants - “These grants are part of a partnership between the federal government and coastal states, including those bordering the Great Lakes, under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act.”
  • Regional Coastal Resilience Grants - “Regional Coastal Resilience grants, which deal more specifically with bracing communities for adverse climate and weather events. These programs “build resilience of coastal communities to the negative impacts from extreme weather events, climate hazards, and changing ocean conditions"
  • Coastal Ecosystem Resiliency Grants - "Restoring ecosystems so they can adjust to changing conditions in a way that also benefits humans. Wetlands, when healthy, can help keep pace with sea-level rise. They can also help weaken hurricane storm surges."
  • National Estuarine Research Reserve System - “program produces scientific data on these unique ecosystems and provides training and education for local communities and policymakers on protecting and managing them."
  • Sea Grant Program - "a partnership between NOAA and universities across the nation, which supports coastal research and education… These programs can be vital sources of information on everything from fisheries management to storm preparation." Source.

This is very serious. As the Washington Post wrote, “Experts think the proposed cuts would not only disarm our coasts in the face of warming and rising seas and the growing storm threats that come with them but that they would disadvantage coastal states, including many states that voted for Trump, in dealing with threats they’re likely to face.” It is not dramatic to say that the funding and expertise provided by these programs can make the difference between high-risk cities like New Orleans existing in a few decades from now. It also makes the lives of emergency managers much more difficult on a day-to-day basis.

The Washington Post provides a good summary of how serious this situation is: “For now, the budget cuts remain only a proposal — but one that could place coastal communities at a disadvantage in the face of sea-level rise, natural disasters, and other impending environmental changes. In fact, well-planned adaptation efforts could make the difference in whether cities such as Miami and New Orleans survive into the next century.  But although the effects of climate change remain among the greatest risks to the U.S. shoreline, one also doesn’t necessarily have to believe in anthropogenic global warming to acknowledge the services provided by these programs. In addition to climate adaptation efforts, they also support resilience against storms and other natural events, research on fisheries management, the preservation of wetlands (which have value for recreation and biodiversity as much as coastal buffering) and general community planning processes. “Just from a dollars-and-cents perspective, avoiding human suffering, why would you do anything to pull back on support where most people live and where most of the infrastructure is built?” said Arroyo of the Georgetown Climate Center. “That’s not cost effective.”

National Weather Service

The National Weather Service (NWS) falls under NOAA but it seems appropriate to separate their proposed cuts. In 1900 the most deadly hurricane in US history decimated Galveston, Texas killing over 6000 people. They died because the director of the Galveston Weather Bureau, Isaac Cline, did not understand how hurricanes work and did not have the technology to track them. Instead of evacuating, people flocked to the shores to watch the storm roll in. The reason that thousands of people do not die anymore from hurricanes in the United States (of course with the exception of Katrina which we're not getting into here) is because we now have the technology to predict how big hurricanes are and where they are going in enough time to shelter/ evacuate people. 

The National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service would lose $513 million and the NWS with a 5% cut ($53 million). Though seemingly minimal in comparison, the division is already underfunded so these cuts would mean eliminating services that we literally rely on to live safely on a daily basis. The Washington Post summarized: “If satellite data are compromised, then the models aren’t as good, and that makes the forecaster’s job more difficult.” Do you like getting warnings when there is a tornado? Do you like not being surprised by hurricanes? To put it simply: Emergency managers and local officials cannot make informed decisions without the data that is provided by these agencies.

AmeriCorps

One proposed budget shows cuts to the AmeriCorps programs though the exact amount has not been reported. Non-profit agencies use (and are often dependent) on AmeriCorp volunteers throughout the recovery process to help manage temporary volunteers, run and develop programs, and bolster the capacity of these organizations. Craig Fugate wrote a good piece a few years ago about the importance of AmeriCorps for emergency management.

The CDC

The CDC is not immune either with a proposed $1 billion in cuts. This would effect programs related to preventing disease outbreaks, lead poisoning prevention, and others related to strengthening our response to public health threats. According to CNN, “losing this funding would cripple officials' ability to detect, prevent and respond to health threats including pandemic flu. Public health advocates agree." Fun fact: a border wall does not stop the flu from spreading to America.

 

The Role of the Federal Government in Emergency Management

In the United States, the federal role in emergency management is rather limited. There are, however, plenty of things done at a federal level that contributes to our ability to mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from hazard events; and, there are plenty of things done that can increase our overall risk to certain hazard events. I am running under the assumption that the current President of the United States has zero emergency management experience. Which is 100% fine as long as he listens to the people who do. Unfortunately, this proposed budget suggests that this administration has no understanding of even the most basic principles of emergency management and have a skewed risk perception when it comes to the threats this country faces. 

Yes, every White House since the Disaster Relief Act of 1950 has reorganized and made changes to the federal role in emergency management. Some of those changes have been objectively better than others. Everyone would agree that of course there are ways to make FEMA, etc. be more efficient and effective. Undermining the agency, however, and those that influence emergency management based on climate denial and skewed risk perception is incompetent and dangerous. To be honest, I don’t need the President (whoever it is) to do anything besides sign the Presidential Disaster Declarations when FEMA say so but I do need federal agencies to be funded and supported. Though the federal government only fulfills a limited role in emergency management, it is an important one. 

I have not even broached the subject of the cascading negative implications that something like a poorly written infrastructure bill could have for emergency management. Nor have I addressed the proposed cuts to foreign aid that would directly affect the assistance provided in emergencies, disasters, and complex humanitarian crises from the United States to countries around the world, at the same time that we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since 1945, according to the United Nations, with 20 million people worldwide at risk of starvation and famine. Besides the obvious moral responsibility to help others, our global interconnectedness means that it is in our best interest to address hazards abroad before they affect us at home. 

So, what happens if these programs don’t exist? Are there other agencies or organizations that will pick up the slack? In some cases, maybe, but largely the answer is no. Even if some of these programs are not producing the most efficient and effective results the solution is not to cut them completely, but to figure out how to make them more effective. You have to understand that these agencies are already operating on shoestring budgets. Any and all cuts will have negative consequences for our ability to mitigate, prepare for, respond to, or recover from hazard events, including terrorism.

It is expected that we will get a look at the full proposed budget in mid-March. Regardless of how close the proposal is to the final bill that is passed by congress, the proposal provides us insight as to what kind of support emergency management can expect to receive from the White House. These cuts are ludicrous to literally everyone (both liberal and conservative!) with even a basic knowledge of homeland security and emergency management but as Politico pointed out, “the White House’s priorities are clearly reflected in [these] figures”. 

To put this simply, the proposed budget cuts that have been outlined thus far are bad for emergency management and subsequently our national security. They minimize our capacity to mitigate, prepare, respond, and recover from hazard events while simultaneously increasing our risk. This is quite literally a recipe for disaster. 

Of course, the good news is that we don’t have radioactive boars roaming around. Though, with Rick Perry in charge of the Department of Energy…