Politics & Policy

Hurricane Blame

Look to Congress, too.

As Congress held hearings this week on the response to Hurricane Katrina, there seems to have been widespread agreement that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is the main actor to blame for the government’s stumbles in its response to the disaster. Senator Susan Collins (R., Maine), chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, noted that according to the DHS mission statement, one of its fundamental responsibilities is “preparing for natural disasters and terrorist attacks through planning, technology, and coordinated efforts. In the event of a natural or man-made disaster, DHS will be the first federal department to utilize a full range of state, local, and private partnerships to alleviate the effects of a potential disaster.” She then added, “Clearly that mission was not accomplished. The federal department that was supposed to lead, direct, and coordinate the federal response to Katrina was time and again late, uncertain, and ineffective.”

Another question on lawmakers’ minds is how is it that, four years after the September 11 attacks, a major area of our country was so ill-prepared to respond to a catastrophe? The final report of the bipartisan committee investigating the Katrina response explains: “It remains difficult to understand how government could respond so ineffectively to a disaster that was anticipated for years, and for which specific dire warnings had been issued for days. The crisis was not only predictable, it was predicted.”

And this is clearly not for lack of funding. Since September 11, Congress has allocated over $20 billion to the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies to spend on preparedness and disaster response grants to state and local governments. So what happened?

There is no doubt that Chertoff, as the man in charge of the response effort, should bear some of the blame. In fact, confronted by critical senators at the recent hearings, he accepted the blame for the disaster response. Yet that shouldn’t divert our attention away from where the ultimate fault lies. We shouldn’t forget that much of what the secretary does is constrained by what lawmakers on Capitol Hill mandate. The pathetic failure to respond in a timely and effective fashion to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina is first and foremost a direct consequence of the disaster preparedness system designed by Congress.

Members of Congress and many state and local officials got exactly the system they wanted. Most importantly, each one of them wanted a piece of the homeland security budget. So they appropriated billions of dollars over the years for preparedness efforts. However, they refused to give DHS the most important resource of all: the power to allocate funding based on risk.

Currently, DHS has no choice but to follow a formula set by Congress that provides every state with a guaranteed minimum amount of grants regardless of risk or need. Specifically, the formula guarantees each state 0.75 percent of the total amount appropriated to DHS for state preparedness grants. This arrangement results in almost 40 percent of the money being divided up equally among the states.

Consequently, rural, less populated areas, or populated areas that are less likely to be targeted by terrorist acts, often receive a disproportionate amount of grant money. For instance, Wyoming and Alaska rank number one and two in per capita DHS grant spending in 2005, while New York and California finish toward the bottom.

The same formula is used to spread money to cities. New Orleans typically ranks low in most of the homeland security grant programs. And yet, the city was–even before Katrina hit–a high-risk area. It is the 35th most populous city in the nation. It hosts one of the nation’s busiest ports, with crude oil, natural gas, and chemical facilities. Not to mention the universal acknowledgement that New Orleans was extremely vulnerable to hurricane destruction. Yet it ranked 46th among the 50 high-risk cities that received the Department’s Urban Area Security Initiative Grants in FY04.

The lack of risk-based funding coupled with the absence of federal terrorism preparedness standards means, for instance, that fire and police around the nation have bought numerous hazmat suits instead of acquiring radio systems compatible at the national level, systems that would allow first responders to communicate and coordinate in the event of a catastrophic event. The pork-barrel, rather than risk-based, funding rules also mean that limited resources have been spread so thin that we protect nowhere adequately.

Last year, President Bush proposed to distribute grants to state and local governments based primarily on the risk of terrorist attacks and the magnitude of potential damages–not population. Instead, the House and the Senate each came up with their own reform of the grant formula that made sure that each state still gets a piece of the homeland security pie. The House version managed to give the illusion of increased allocation based on risk, while the Senate version bluntly increased the share allocated regardless of risk.

Politicians in Washington are eager to pin blame for the massive failure in responding to Hurricane Katrina on someone. Michael Chertoff is an easy target. However, firing him would not solve the real problem. Some responsibility from Congress would. From the beginning, it got the disaster system it wanted and fought for. It is a system that allocates money based on politics rather than security. It is a system that allows senators and congressmen to crow about how much security funding they won for their state. It is a system that dilutes homeland security spending by equipping every police station with hazmat suits instead of preparing for the worse case scenarios. It is a system that can’t even respond to a predicted and frequently modeled disaster scenario like a hurricane hitting New Orleans. It is a system in the image of Washington politics: inept.

Veronique de Rugy is a research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


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