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Opinion: Columnists

FEMA and disaster socialism

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Hurricane Sandy hadn't even touched down when liberals started blowing kisses to FEMA, or Federal Emergency Management Agency, the federal disaster relief agency. A New York Times editorial declared that the impending storm proved that the country needs FEMA-style "Big Government" solutions more than ever. Salon, New Republic and other liberal outfits heartily agreed.

Why do liberals love FEMA so much? Certainly not for its glorious track record. Rather, FEMA has been a great vehicle for expanding the welfare state.

FEMA's tragic missteps after Katrina earned it well-deserved disgrace. The Times blames those on the Bush administration, whose anti-government philosophy supposedly gutted FEMA. President Obama, the argument goes, straightened things out, and Americans should now "feel lucky" that the agency is there for them. Without it, local and state authorities wouldn't be able to coordinate where "rescuers should go, where drinking water should be shipped, and how to assist hospitals that have to evacuate."

So how did the new and improved FEMA perform post-Sandy, a storm for which it had lots of advance warning? Not so well.

It didn't set up its first relief center until four days after Sandy hit -- only to run out of drinking water on the same day. It couldn't put sufficient boots on the ground to protect Queens residents from roving looters. The Red Cross -- on whom FEMA depends for delivering basic goods -- left Staten Island stranded for nearly a week, prompting borough President Jim Molinaro to fume that America was not a Third World country. But FEMA's most egregious gaffe was that it arranged for 24 million gallons of free gas for Sandy's victims, but most of them couldn't lay their hands on it.

But if you think FEMA's inability to provide rapid relief subverts the core reason for its existence, think again. A few days after the Times' valentine, FEMA head W. Craig Fugate told the newspaper that the agency's rapid response role is really a fallacy. "The general public assumes we are part of the response team that will be there the first couple of days," he said. But it is really designed to deal with disasters several days after the fact.

How does FEMA do that? By indiscriminately writing checks -- a task at which it evidently excels.

FEMA administrator Elizabeth Zimmerman testified before Congress last year that between 2005 and 2009, 14.5 percent of the agency's $10 billion-plus disaster aid budget was handed to people who didn't qualify. The agency tried to get 154,000 of these people to return the money (on average, each had received about $5,000), but they filed a class action lawsuit forcing FEMA to pay them a multimillion settlement. And it forgave the debt of every one with an income below $90,000.

Zimmerman claims that the agency has since cut overpayments to about 3 percent of distributed aid. But as the Heritage Foundation's Matt Mayer, a former Department of Homeland Security official who has written extensively about FEMA, notes: "I have no basis to believe that FEMA can put in place processes that would allow it to means-test or verify the eligibility of disaster victims."

The bigger problem is not with who gets FEMA money, but why. Less than a sixth of Alabama's $566 million allotment after Katrina financed legitimate government functions such as debris removal, repairing damaged infrastructure and restoring public utilities. The rest was all handouts: food stamps, subsidies for trailer homes and low-interest loans for small businesses.

The FEMA website is already advertising goodies for Sandy victims, including 26 weeks of unemployment benefits and up to $200,000 worth of low-interest loans for home repairs not covered by insurance. In addition, it wants to hand out $2 million loans to small businesses and nonprofits (of all sizes) experiencing "cash flow problems." Farmers and ranchers could likewise qualify for $500,000 in loans to cover production and property losses.

Anyone in Sandy's path can latch on to the FEMA teat. This is not disaster relief but disaster socialism. It is one thing for the government to provide emergency housing, health care and food; it is quite another to compensate victims for every loss. If people knocked down by a storm deserve such federal largesse, why not open the coffers to anyone who suffers a car crash, a death in the family or a broken heart?

The next four years won't be propitious for rethinking FEMA's role. But Republicans have to at least try, lest every crisis become another excuse to expand the welfare state.

Shikha Dalmia is a Reason Foundation senior policy analyst.

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