Fans of the popular series, Game of Thrones, have been anticipating the coming of winter for many years. While the march of the white walkers is menacing the citizens of Westeros, an outdated federal tool used to assess federal disasters have put the federal taxpayers on the hook for minor winter storms and other run-of-the mill weather events.
In 2014, former ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Tom Coburn, released the report, An Imperfect Storm: How the Outdated Federal Rules Distort the Disaster Declaration Process and Fleece Taxpayers. The report outlines the “dramatic rise in the number of federally-declared disasters” and how disaster spending has been taken to the extreme.
According to the report, “Congress created the relief and assistance programs that allow the federal government to step in and help when severe natural disasters are too much for state and local capabilities to handle.” However, disaster declarations have increased significantly. “Nearly half of all recently declared “disasters” would not have qualified for federal assistance in the 1980s and 1990s,” according to the report. This is because FEMA has not updated its “per-capita damage indicator” (PCDI) for inflation since 1986. Not updating the PCDI means FEMA spent almost $1 billion between the years 2011 and 2014 it otherwise would not have had it updated the PCDI.
This includes declaring a 4.9 inch snowstorm in Tulsa, Oklahoma a federal disaster – which cost $6.4 million in damage. At one point in 2014, 33 states had an active federal disaster area and 18 of those were due to winter storms “where a large portion of the estimated damages included snow removal after a few inches of snow.”
The PCDI also gives an unfair advantage to smaller states when declaring disasters. According to the report, “the formula divides the total estimated cost of damage by the number of residents in the state. For example, $1 million in estimated damage in a state with 1 million residents would result in $1 of per capita damage. However, $1 million in damage in a state with 10 million people would produce 10 cents in per capita damage.”
A real life example happened in 2013 when a storm hit both Texas and Oklahoma, but only Oklahoma was granted a major disaster declaration due to the state’s low per capita damage indicator. While the storm affected counties in Texas that bordered Oklahoma, Texas’s high per capita damage indicator influenced FEMA’s decision to deny a major disaster declaration.
Additionally, states often over-estimate damage so they qualify for federal disaster relief. The report notes that even with the current disaster indicator, if more accurate estimates were provided by states, 43% of all 2011 and 2012 disasters would have not required federal disaster relief.
News coverage of weather related disasters are increasing, but coverage about our country’s fiscal situation is not. Our country is $20 trillion in debt, unfunded liabilities total over $106 trillion, and earmarks this year totaled $6.8 billion. Simple reforms like updating the PCDI could save taxpayers billions, and will help the federal government reliably support communities when true catastrophes do occur. It is past due for Congress to wield its dragon glass and take out this waste.
Read the full report here!