Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Govt shutdown and disaster response

I talked about the new reality we face as practitioners in yesterday's post, the world where more frequent and stronger weather-related events impact greater numbers people than ever before. Well a new wrinkle has been added to our unique operating environment--a partial government shutdown. The impacts of this shutdown will take time to fully understand, but I've read a lot of conflicting reports about what this means exactly to community response and recovery.
Source: Larry Downing/Reuters
There's a worry about whether FEMA-related programming will continue, and the answer is, yes they will i.e. Individual Assistance and Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). And according to Dan Watson, a spokesman for FEMA:
“There are more than 1,000 FEMA workers on the ground in Colorado responding to the floods. They are not being impacted by the shutdown."
So there will be the administrative personnel to ensure that the recovery machine keeps moving. This brings a sigh of relief to the residents in Colorado who are beginning to understand the impact the floodwaters had. Colorado State government on the other had will spend between $40-$80,000/day keeping 120 National Guardsmen focused on the rehabilitation of critical infrastructure that would otherwise have stopped.

However, for the city of Moore, OK the shutdown looks like it could delay a 4 Million dollar reimbursement check FEMA needs to cut for reimbursing cleanup costs. And for those on the east coast, the shutdown looks like it will slow down the dispersement of available grant funds fueling long term recovery. Even though money has been allocated for Sandy Relief, there's the problem with staffing. For instance, of the 749 employees in HUD's Community Planning and Development office which handles grants to cities and states for recovery, only 13 employees will go to work everyday during the shutdown. Long Term Recovery is a slow process to begin with when fully staffed and all the kinks worked out, I believe the reduction in staffing will have a ripple effect that will be felt for months to come and work against the gains made in advancing recovery in communities impacted by Sandy.

Because funding for long term recovery comes from a diverse range of federal entities, making exceptions to keep people working in the various agencies on behalf of impacted communities during the shutdown would've required a herculean effort that did not materialize. It seems that disaster specific dollars are available, the question that remains is whether or not there are enough people to provide the oversight needed to keep things moving.

Environmental Protection Agency
You can't have disasters without some sort of environmental impact, which is why the EPA plays a critical role in helping to define what that impact is and how best to address it.

The EPA states that those who are engaged in activities that:

"ensure continued public health and safety, including safe use of food and drugs and safe use of hazardous materials; those who protect federal lands, buildings, equipment and research property; those who conduct law enforcement and criminal investigations; and those who provide emergency and disaster assistance" will continue working.
While good to know, it remains unclear at this time as to whether or not the work the EPA was doing in Colorado to define the extent of the potential environmental impacts the floodwaters had on the Fracking wells continues or not. With 94% of the EPA's employees not working and reports that the amount of oil spilled as a result of the flooding has topped 40,000 gallons, I sincerely hope that the EPA has boots on the ground. 

I don't know about you, but I'm not overcome with a sense of calm, I guess it's because I keep thinking about what would happen should another event take place? Say a major hurricane makes landfall, would FEMA be able to deploy resources? In theory, I imagine they would because the funds used to implement PA/IA programming come from the Disaster Relief Fund; however, actually implementing those programs may be impossible due to furloughed personnel. 

Partial or total, a shutdown of our government will have serious ramifications that impact communities recovering from disasters--I hope that common ground can be found so the business of helping communities recover can begin in earnest once again.

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