Thursday, January 30, 2014

To declare, or not declare...that is the question...

Washington, IL November Tornado Source: imugr
While never having had the responsibility of sitting in a County Executive's position or position of even greater responsibility at the state level, I would imagine that when a disaster strikes, they are conflicted: on the one hand they worry about the safety of their constituents, and on the other, they want the event to cause enough damage so that their jurisdiction can qualify for federal assistance. In a time when cities are declaring bankruptcy and tax bases are eroding, elected officials have to navigate the emotional fallout of a disaster as well as figure out how to pay for the subsequent response and recovery.

Although the disasters of 2013 didn't have the gravitational pull that Superstorm Sandy had, the Oklahoma Tornadoes, The Rim Fire in California, and the Colorado flooding all caused significant damage and all received Major Disaster Declarations.

However, 2013 also had several events that didn't qualify for Individual and/or Public Assistance, adding new voices and national coverage to growing discontent on how exactly the declaration process works. While some sort of declarations were given to the Yarnell Fire in AZ, The Fertilizer Plant explosion in TX, and the November Tornado outbreak in Illinois, in each instance there was an outcry that more should have been done to support the communities and survivors of those events.

Even though the above events didn't meet designated thresholds that would have triggered the full breadth of federal assistance, a Bill (H.R. 3295) was introduced in the House of Representatives with the intent of amending the criteria under which resources are offered dubbed the: "Fairness in Federal Disaster Declarations Act of 2014."

This Bill, which was introduced on January 21st, would amend the criteria used to evaluate a request for a major disaster declaration by weighting the factors used to determine Individual and Public Assistance, as well as request that economic factors of the impacted locality and the state's financial situation be taken into account when determining eligibility.

When the Congressional Act of 1803 was passed, considered the first piece of disaster legislation, it provided assistance to Portsmouth New Hampshire, a town recovering from a major fire. Prior to that localities were left to fend for themselves in the wake of a diaster. The premise on which our Emergency Management infrastructure is based is that events are to be handled at the lowest level of government possible. By amending the rules on how federal assistance is meted out, would we be making more events eligible? Would it work against the goals of creating resilience and bolstering preparedness in communities? Would the Bill ultimately end up paying for deferred infrastructure improvements? Not only that, but who's paying for the additional dollars given to disaster survivors?

While the current criteria used to trigger federal assistance following an event may have its flaws, I believe more questions and a more thorough investigation of Bill H.R. 3925 will need to be undertaken as it seems to pose more questions than it answers.

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