Monday, February 19, 2007

What A Disgrace

You've heard of FEMA? The Federal Emergency Management Agency? Here in New Orleans that's a four-letter word, and nastier than most of the familiar ones. In a competition between the Army Corps of Engineers, which built the levees that failed, and FEMA, which couldn't deal with the resulting disaster, it's neck & neck which is despised most by Orleanians. Mardi Gras is tomorrow and the parades have been running for ten days, and the parade Krewes that feature political satire have been hitting those two hard.

But there's plenty of blame to go to the White House, as spelled out in this New York Times Editorial. FEMA's distribution of federal funds in response to a disaster is governed by the Stafford Act, which requires matching funds from states to get federal moneys. The basic standard is that the state supplies 25%, and the Feds supply the rest. This is reasonable, for ordinary problems, like localized flooding from a bad rainstorm.

When the damage gets worse the standards change, and the basis is the monetary loss per capita, the cost of the damage spread over every member of the state. When the amount goes over $110 per person in the state the state portion drops from 25% to 10%. And if the damage is really severe the federal government, at the direction of the White House, can waive the matching funds requirement entirely. Since 1985 this has been done 32 times, when per capita damage was high and especially when it was a high profile incident.

In 1992 Hurricane Andrew hit the US, first in Florida and then in Louisiana. While four people were killed in Louisiana when it arrived here, the worst damage by far was in Florida with massive property damage and about sixty deaths. The federal matching fund requirement was waived. The per capita damage amount for Floridians was $139.

The horrible terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon cost 3,000 lives, traumatized millions, and seared our minds forever. The physical damage in New York, though, was limited to a fairly confined area of lower Manhattan. But recognizing the magnitude of this disaster, the federal government again waived the matching fund requirement. The per capita damage amount for New York state residents was $390.

The Katrina disaster zone, augmented by Hurricane Rita's, is orders of magnitude beyond these. The flood damage zone just within the city limits of New Orleans is nearly eight times as large as all of Manhattan Island. The actual damage zone extends over much of two states. Thousands of people have died, and hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes, many never to return.

One bitter fact is that the true death toll will never be counted, and not just because of the bodies that were swept away in the storm. We here all know stories of those who managed to evacuate out of state to safety but simply could not rally. These often were people ill and elderly, ripped from their homes, sometimes the only home they had known, with no hope of going back. Many simply gave up and died, and I count in this group a very dear friend of mine whom I will always miss. But since these people did not die in Louisiana they will not be counted as victims of the storm, though we here all know that they were.

So in the face of all this what has been the federal policy? Have they waived the matching funds requirement, to help us out like they did Florida and New York?

They have not. The per person damage cost here is not $139, as it was in Florida after Hurricane Andrew. It is not $390, as it was in New York after 9/11.

It has been estimated at $6,700 per person in Louisiana. And they will not give us a waiver.

Imagine that.

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