Does America still need FEMA?

Two men look at damage in the Breezy Point area of Queens in New York on October 30, 2012 after fire destroyed about 80 homes as a result of Hurricane Sandy which hit the area on October 29.

Hurricane Sandy has once again brought criticism of the Federal Emergency Management Agency as some Americans believe the government organization isn't an efficient use of money and doesn't handle disaster relief well.

Is it time for FEMA to be disbanded? Should states take more responsibility for the disaster recovery?

The FEMA we're seeing on the East Coast is a much different agency after Hurricane Katrina, said Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center and a professor at the University of Colorado - Boulder, on The Daily Circuit Tuesday. FEMA received heavy criticism for its handling of disaster relief on Gulf Coast in 2005.

"There have been a number of important changes that have come online since Katrina," she said. "Between the period of Sept. 11, 2001, the terrorist attacks, and the time Katrina struck, a lot of things happened to FEMA that really diminished its capacity. Many programs were taken away from it; the country turned more in the direction of terrorism preparedness and response."

The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 cleared a lot of these issues up, Tierney said.

In Minnesota, FEMA's decision to deny individual homeowner assistance to the victims of flooding in northeastern Minnesota this summer was criticized by officials across the state.

Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina, also joined the discussion. She said FEMA is meant to provide assistance above and beyond what states should be able to assist with.

"Not every event creates a disaster that requires federal relief," she said. "First and foremost, the responsibility for the decision making to have those people in harm's way rests at the local level. And the responsibility for ensuring that there is an adequate response also rests at the local level and then filters up to the state level... Just because you had a small event that may have been somewhat significant for a portion of your population doesn't mean you automatically qualify for this larger disaster declaration."

Barry W. Scanlon, president of Witt Associates and previously a business liaison and corporate outreach official for FEMA's Project Impact, said states have the responsibility to request aid as a way to help residents as much as possible. Unfortunately, there are disasters across the country that don't rise to the level required for additional aid.

"It was perfectly appropriate for them to try and get the declaration from FEMA," he said. "There are literally hundreds and sometimes thousands of disasters throughout our country every year. And there's usually somewhere between 300 declared a year depending on the disaster cycle that's going on. So there's many more that are denied than are actually declared. The main purpose of the system of course is to make sure that when resources, capabilities are stretched or overwhelmed at a local level and state level, that's when FEMA should be coming in."

People who are critical of FEMA often argue that it should be disbanded so states feel more responsible for planning their own emergency funding. But a caller from St. Paul said she researches emergency preparedness and worries that isn't the best solution.

She said she attended an international conference discussing Japan's response to the tsunami.

"A number of people died in the tsunami because there was no coordinated system, because it's only organized at the prefecture level," she said. "I'm concerned about this notion that we would then think we could coordinate all of our emergency preparedness response at the state level."

A caller from Sioux Falls, S.D. said he thinks it should stay at the federal level, but there should be more effort to prevent future disasters from affecting so many people.

"I believe the biggest problem is that these disasters continue to happen, for example in the Red River Valley in Minnesota," he said. "When FEMA comes in to help or not to help, I think they should be directing that we're going to move people. We will help you pay for whatever, but you have to move. That land should be farm land or parks, or it should be privately held stuff that people who buy it understand what could happen in the future and then FEMA doesn't have to come in and help."

Tierney said that is part of FEMA's role and should be taken more seriously.

"We're living right now with a legacy of really poor development decisions, and we're going to pay and pay unless we can get ourselves out of this situation," she said.

Is Minnesota prepared for a disaster? Comment on the blog.

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