As the nation grapples with one costly natural disaster after another, Washington’s politicians systematically have been cutting funds for disaster preparedness.
Even as the nation laments the deaths of children in Oklahoma’s tornado alley, where two schools hit in devastated Moore could not afford safe rooms at a per-room cost of $1.4 million, national money appropriated for prevention, protection, response and recovery has been smaller every year since 2010.
According to Rep. David Price, D-N.C., former chair of the House Appropriations homeland security subcommittee before Republicans took control of the House, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was given $3.05 billion in 2010 for disaster preparation grants. By 2012, that declined to $1.35 billion. Price notes that FEMA’s pre-disaster mitigation grants have fallen from $100 million in 2010 to $35.5 million.
Beginning in March, the budget “sequester” passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama began mandating automatic cuts in all government programs, including disaster preparedness. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said earlier this year the cuts will undermine preparedness and national security.
Republicans are arguing among themselves whether the federal government should fund relief for Oklahoma’s victims. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said that if Congress votes aid for his home state, it should be offset by spending cuts elsewhere. Coburn was among 36 senators who voted against aid for last year’s Hurricane Sandy victims, arguing it had become a bag of goodies.
Wake-up calls ignored
While a small percentage of residents and small-business owners in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey have rebuilt since Sandy, most of that money came either from bank loans or savings. Thousands who lost homes and businesses have no such resources. In Moore, there are estimates that 13,000 homes are gone. The state’s rainy day fund is not enough to rebuild them and also restore the area’s infrastructure.
As he did after Sandy, Obama has pledged that every resource Oklahoma needs will be available from FEMA.
After the tragedy in Oklahoma, many said it was a “wake-up call” for America. For example, every school and day care center should have a safe room. But Sandy was supposed to be a wake-up call. So was the tornado that ripped apart Joplin, Mo., two years ago. And so was Hurricane Katrina. And 9/11.
For a decade we have spent hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan, money that until 2009 was not included in the official U.S. budget.
Meanwhile, our infrastructure is falling apart. The Minnesota bridge collapse was a wake-up call that we needed to rebuild bridges, highways and ports. So far little has been done. And 9/1l was a wake-up call about the inability of first responders to communicate with each other, an issue still not completely addressed.
There is growing concern that we’re not prepared to handle a biological attack or epidemic. A majority of states scored slightly lower on emergency health preparedness in 2012 than in 2010, according to a study by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Here in Washington, in one 48-hour period, a man died because no ambulance responded for more than 20 minutes, a huge sinkhole opened up two blocks from the White House on a major artery, and the National Park Police announced each officer on patrol would have a furlough this summer of 14 to 22 days and calls for help might take as long as an hour to answer.
Are we awake yet?
Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. Email: email@example.com.