The U.S. saw a horrific hurricane season, unprecedented wildfires, and a powerful derecho this year alone. A record-breaking 16 climate disasters caused at least $1 billion in damage each. And yet the Federal Emergency Management Agency is pursuing a plan that would cut disaster aid to certain states.
On Monday, Trump’s FEMA proposed substantial changes to the standards that the agency uses to review governors’ requests for “major disaster” aid under the Public Assistance Program. If passed, officials would factor states’ “fiscal capacity”—or wealth—when deciding whether or not to send over funding. This means that wealthier states would have to demonstrate that climate disasters have caused much more damage to qualify for aid.
FEMA claims the changes will let it “more accurately gauge” whether or not emergency resources are necessary, and allow federal officials to focus their attention on “catastrophic disasters.” It also claims the more stringent standards will encourage states to create their own plans to handle disaster response, rather than simply relying on the feds.
But in practice, the tightened rules would make it much more difficult for states to qualify for financial assistance to deal with the fallout of storms, floods, and fires, while removing the responsibility from the federal government to help. In fact, the agency says that under the new rules, 159 of the of the 585 disasters for which it approved funding between 2008 to 2017 wouldn’t qualify for funding. FEMA estimates that the new standards would mean it spends $270 million less per year, leaving struggling state economies to pick up the slack. By refusing to spend the funds that it could simply print out through the Federal Reserve, the federal government could force state officials to dip into other budgets and substantially slow disaster response. It could also be a huge drag for California and other wealthier states, which tend to be blue but still need assistance when it comes to disasters.
The suggested changes couldn’t be coming at a worse time for states, which have seen dramatic cuts to their budgets amid the economic crash sparked by the covid-19 pandemic. Every single state is working with a smaller budget than it had before the spread of the coronavirus due to a drop in tax revenue that contribute to state programs.
For now, the FEMA proposal is just that, a proposal. A mandatory public comment period will be open until February, and the agency is sure to catch heat from state officials like those from Colorado, Oregon and Michigan, who are already urging FEMA assume more of the costs of debris removal after disasters.
Don’t get me wrong, ensuring that state agencies have emergency plans at the ready for disasters is a good idea. FEMA could incentivize officials to get those plans in order by making receiving emergency funding contingent on doing so. But it seems as disasters get worse and more frequent amid the climate crisis, we should be making more federal funding available to deal with them, not less.