By Colorado Law Student Hunter Knapp
On February 13, 2019, Brock Long resigned his post as FEMA administrator after a convoluted chain of command caused friction between him and Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirsten Nielsen. This resignation comes in the wake of failed responses to Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Harvey, and the wildfires that struck California in 2018. A key player in these failed responses is President Trump, whose obsession with building a border wall threatens to redirect vital funding Congress appropriated to help these communities rebuild. He is now attempting to accomplish this through an emergency declaration under the facade of national security. This diversion of funds occurs would merely be the latest example of national security concerns compromising the ability of the United States to respond effectively to natural disasters. If Mr. Long joins other former FEMA directors in calling for the restoration of FEMA as an independent agency, perhaps we should not be surprised.
President Carter recognized the need for a unified directorate with a clear objective to address natural disaster preparedness and response when he consolidated the nation’s emergency response services into FEMA as an independent agency in 1978. This apparatus functioned adequately until 2002 when Congress passed the Homeland Security Act in response to September 11th. This Act broke FEMA down and inserted the various functions into the new Department of Homeland Security.
This new approach to emergency response faced its first major test when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. It failed miserably. Despite receiving early warnings of the magnitude of the approaching storm, communities were tragically underprepared for the consequences. Intense winds and flooding destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes, including most of New Orleans. The federal response to this disaster was disorganized, underfunded, and insufficient. Rebuilding ravaged areas took far longer than necessary, and the most vulnerable people paid the greatest cost. The massive failure captured the media landscape, and compelled Congress to pass the Post-Katrina Emergency Reform Act (“PKERA”) in 2006.
The PKERA reconsolidated the nation’s emergency response capabilities into an agency called FEMA, but that agency remained under the DHS umbrella. This solution allowed lawmakers to avoid a political crisis but did not solve the structural issues that define United States emergency response. The institutional flaws continued to cripple American natural disaster response over the next decade. Several past FEMA administrators warned that the incorporation of natural disaster response into DHS compromised the mission of the agency. They emphasized the likelihood that FEMA’s funding and importance would diminish in favor of counter-terrorism objectives. These predictions appear prophetic when looking back at the natural disaster preparedness and response record in the years following the PKERA.
After President Trump assumed office in 2017, the Gulf Coast experienced one of the most active hurricane seasons in U.S. history. Hurricane Harvey flooded the Houston area and Hurricane Maria led to the deaths of thousands of Puerto Ricans. Both of these areas were left in desperate need of help from the federal government. Yet in the aftermath of the devastation, President Trump told his chief of staff and budget director that he did not want a single dollar going to aid Puerto Rico. Instead, President Trump requested that the money be sent to help Texas and Florida instead. This could have been motivated by alleged misuse of funds by the Puerto Rican government, as President Trump claimed. Another possibility is that the President hoped to use those funds as a political tool to win the votes of two states that will likely be crucial battle grounds in the 2020 election. A third possibility is that President Trump’s decision to withhold funds from a U.S. territory predominantly populated by people of Latinx descent was motivated by racism. Regardless of his motivation, this attempt to withhold federal support from vulnerable Americans illustrated the need for a disaster relief apparatus insulated from political interference.
The cannibalization of FEMA’s budget and threat of political interference cannot be addressed with FEMA’s current administrative structure. To remedy this, Congress should pass legislation to remove the nation’s natural disaster emergency response from the DHS umbrella and reestablish FEMA as an independent agency. This new independent agency should be led by a board of bipartisan commissioners with fixed terms who are only removable “for-cause”. FEMA’s budget should be expanded, and explicitly protected from executive interference. These changes will empower FEMA to accomplish its critical objective of properly preparing vulnerable communities to persevere through natural disasters.
Hunter Knapp is a rising 2L at Colorado Law and a Staff Writer for the Colorado Natural Resource, Energy, and Environmental Law Review