Environmental threats on the rise as costly geopolitical problems loom as well.

After a record-breaking year for natural disasters in America, Lahaina will be vying for recovery assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency amid growing geopolitical threats and within a bitterly partisan political climate.

So far this year, President Joe Biden has issued 69 major disaster declarations in the United States, including the fire in Lahaina, which is the largest number of such events in more than a decade.

By contrast there were 47 in 2022, 58 in 2021, and fewer than 62 in each of the preceding years since 2012. (There were more than 100 declared in 2020 but that was because each state was individually granted emergency relief because of the coronavirus pandemic.) The all-time high was in 2011, when 99 major disasters were declared by the Obama administration because of a tornado “super outbreak” that spawned more than 300 twisters in April and ravaged much of the southeast.

The string of recent natural disasters is racking up a huge price tag, with the National Center for Environmental Information, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, reporting recently that the U.S. has suffered 25 separate weather-related incidents this year, each with losses of over $1 billion, including floods, severe storms, tornadoes, a tropical cyclone and a hurricane, as well as the wildfire in Lahaina.

But FEMA’s original congressionally authorized budget for disaster relief in fiscal year 2024, which runs from Oct. 1, 2023 to Sept. 1, 2024, was only $20 billion — less than the costs of the weather-related disasters alone.

Supplemental funding from Congress has been necessary to make up for the yawning deficit, including the fire in Lahaina, for which additional money had to be appropriated after the events occurred. This has happened regularly in recent years, with supplemental appropriations frequently being larger than the original budgeted appropriation, according to William L. Painter, a specialist in Homeland Security and Appropriations at the Congressional Research Service.

The federal government has spent between $400 billion and $500 billion on disasters of various kinds in the past five to six years, according to analyst Christopher Currie, a director in the General Accountability Office’s Homeland Security and Justice team, who is a specialist in emergency management and disaster response and recovery.

“There’s definitely a trend toward larger and larger disasters, and they are more frequent,” Currie said in an interview, adding that essential infrastructure has become more complicated, making repairs and recovery even most costly.

Reconstruction projects can take years, he said, noting that FEMA is still engaged in projects in New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and in Puerto Rico, which was hit by Hurricane Maria in 2017.

FEMA still has “hundreds and hundreds of disasters that are in some stage of recovery,” he said.

The human toll has also been high this year. Nationwide, at least 464 people were killed in storms or weather events in 2023, according to NOAA. The largest loss of life was in Lahaina, where at least 100 people died in the deadliest wildfire in modern history.

But other communities also lost lives. Hurricane Idalia, which hit Florida in August, resulted in at least four deaths, including a man killed in a weather-related car crash, a wind-surfer who disappeared off the coast and two people killed by falling trees. Two people drowned in the floods in Vermont that same month.

A Strain On FEMA

FEMA is the thin-stretched national disaster agency that is tasked with addressing all these needs. Its financial strain came into sharp focus in October after Rep. Kevin McCarthy, then-speaker of the U.S. House, secured some $16 billion in supplemental funding, which included money for Lahaina, and then found himself pitched out of office because eight recalcitrant fellow Republicans voted him out with the assistance of the entire Democratic party. He has been replaced as speaker by Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, a relative neophyte in Congress whose level of support for Hawaii and for disaster needs is still unknown.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, shown here with U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda, had pledged in September that he would get additional recovery assistance money for the island. His effort succeeded but he was subsequently ousted from his job. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

FEMA is being asked to handle other problems as well. It was a lead agency in the nation’s response to the Covid emergency. It is also being asked to help handle the influx of immigrants at the southern border, housing and sheltering them elsewhere in the country, dispensing some $364 million for that purpose this year.

Some observers are wondering if FEMA is being asked to do too much at a time that its workload from natural disasters is rising.

“FEMA has experienced growing responsibilities and expanding mission sets amid its severe staffing shortages in existing recovery operations,” said U.S. Rep. Anthony D’Esposito, a Republican who represents Long Island, at a hearing in July on FEMA’s future. “I am worried that FEMA is becoming a de facto damage control agency.”

At the hearing, FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell acknowledged that the demands on the agency were increasing but said that agency employees remain “committed to helping people on the worst day of their lives,” when they confront the aftermath of disaster.

At a meeting in October, however, she highlighted even more potential challenges, when she told the National Association of Emergency Managers that while weather challenges are real and growing, she is becoming increasingly concerned about what she called “nation-state threats to our homeland.” Those include threats from Chinese cyber-spying, which could involve attacks on critical computer-controlled infrastructure, possibly to create “societal panic,” and efforts from pro-Russia groups to disrupt ocean shipping at the Port of Los Angeles.

Criswell said that FEMA is increasingly engaged in discussions about how conflicts with foreign countries could result in dangers to American territory, and she urged local governments to collaborate with federal security agencies to bolster U.S. defenses.

FEMA officials declined to comment on the record for this article or be interviewed about these issues, offering instead written answers to several narrow questions that they said could not be quoted. They also declined a request for permission to visit FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C., for a tour of the facility.

FEMA officials and congressional lawmakers have pledged that Lahaina will get the aid it needs for its recovery.

A Changing Bureaucracy

FEMA was originally created as an independent agency by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, but after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it was swept into a massive federal reorganization by President George W. Bush that created the Department of Homeland Security and made FEMA a subordinate department under DHS. That means that although FEMA is itself a popular agency among both Democrats and Republicans — red states and blue states both have weather-related woes and turn to the federal government for help — DHS’s decidedly mixed reviews amid the debate over immigration also reflects on FEMA.

A group of civic leaders who came to DC to press for help from government leaders got a good hearing at FEMA
Officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency welcomed civic and community leaders to their headquarters in October but declined to give an interview or a tour to a Civil Beat reporter. (Chamber of Commerce Hawaii photo)

Critics say that too much bureaucracy is slowing FEMA down at the time it should be speeding up.

In the face of all these competing demands, some people are calling for structural changes at the agency. Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Democrat from Florida who previously served as a state emergency management administrator, thinks FEMA should be an independent agency reporting directly to the president, as it once was. He has introduced bipartisan legislation to do so, saying that he believes FEMA can respond more quickly to emergencies if it can escape bureaucratic complications within its parent agency, DHS.

“There is no doubt that in the future FEMA will be busier than ever before and this move will help cut unnecessary red tape and make FEMA quicker,” Moskowitz said.

That view is shared by disaster experts at the Brookings Institute, who recently published a paper calling federal disaster management “a confusing patchwork.” They said that making FEMA a cabinet-level agency would allow it to better coordinate with myriad other agencies that do work related to disaster recovery, including the Small Business Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency.

All those agencies are simultaneously at work on Maui. FEMA reports that more than $298 million in federal assistance has been distributed on the island since the Aug. 8 fire. The total expense on Maui is still unknown but is expected to tally in the billions of dollars.

Maui’s needs will be weighed against a plethora of other national priorities. The Biden administration is asking for another $106 billion, primarily to give more military funding to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan and for border control. Some Republicans are angling for much more funding to tighten border security. All these competing requests come as the nation’s federal deficit has ratcheted up to $33 trillion.

But veteran Washington observers say that when natural disasters strike, lawmakers almost always find a way to help the communities that have been worst hit.

“The United States will find the dollars,” said Robert Dawson, a former associate director of the Office of Management and Budget, whose job included overseeing the budgets of the Army Corps of Engineers and EPA. “It just may take longer than any of us would like, especially the sufferers, to find the required additional available dollars.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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