Another Disaster

One of the stories that has been submerged in the Midwest flooding is the complete lack of an effective FEMA response, bad judgment, and limited capacity. A tragic example was that FEMA was not requiring flood insurance for a number of houses near rivers and levees, using the incredible logic that they were not going to face a 500-year flood.

Who needs a 500-year flood, when a 100-year or 15-year flood (remember 1993 in the Midwest?) caused untold damage. They just don’t get it.

Both Matt Hersh and Kari Lydersen have posted excellent posts in the past week on the human, social, and economic impact of the failure of the federal government under the current administration to respond in a timely and equitable manner. When race and politics are added to the flood stew, the response is even more shocking and unacceptable.

It wasn’t too long ago — 1994 to be specific — that FEMA and other federal agencies responded effectively to the Northridge Earthquake disaster. Thousands of renters, primarily in the densely populated San Fernando Valley, were displaced from dangerous dwellings, yet most of them were housed quickly. A section of I-10 in West Los Angeles, the most crowded freeway in the country, was inoperable after the earthquake but was quickly fixed.

Natural disasters — whether floods, earthquakes, fires, tornados, windstorms, or storm surges — happen frequently, and many experts think are increasing with climate change. I watched my grandparents’ house burn in the Los Angeles suburbs in the early 1960s, lived through earthquakes, and helped coordinate a community-rebuilding response to three flooded communities in central New Jersey from Hurricane Floyd in 1999. I saw some wonderful work from the Red Cross, Salvation Army, local churches, and schools. As valuable as local leadership and response is, what is paramount from my experience and in discussion with others, is the federal government providing the leadership and resources to help people and communities rebuild their lives.

As citizens, community activists, and leaders, we can no longer tolerate the absence of competent response from the federal government. FEMA does not belong in the Department of Homeland Security, where its mission and purpose is adrift. There needs to be cabinet-level responsibility such as occurred in the Clinton administration. It is not enough for Congress to hold hearings on personal tragedies and lack of federal government response.

As Alice Chasan pointed out in her post yesterday, Congress must provide the leadership and ensure that the federal resources and responses are appropriate. Some hard decisions have to be made, including safely relocating families who live in areas prone to severe flooding, such as some of the towns in Iowa and Missouri.

There was some excellent CDC response in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Woody Widrow (an NHI board member and first editor of Shelterforce), Ralph Scott of the Alliance for Healthy Homes, and I were funded to do some research and wrote an article about it for NeighborWorks America’s magazine Bright Ideas in Spring 2006. Everyone we talked to stressed the critical nature of federal government resources and the difficulty of working with FEMA and SBA.

We can do better than that!

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