FEMA Is Almost Certainly Not Ready for Hurricane Florence

If FEMA's prior record when it comes to disaster response is any indication, the agency is not going to handle this well.



The East Coast is scrambling as residents prepare for Hurricane Florence's landfall later this week. States of emergency have been declared in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, with government officials warning people to take Florence very seriously.

More than a million people have been forced to evacuate their homes, including everyone on the coast of South Carolina. Long story short: Florence is a big deal. It's already been upgraded to a Category 4 storm, and could even become the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the Southeastern coastal region.

Residents aren't the only ones prepping for Florence's landfall; the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is getting ready too. FEMA has set up "incident support bases" at military facilities in North and South Carolina so it can provide hurricane victims with essentials like food, water, and blankets, according to USA Today.

Unfortunately, there's a pretty big chance FEMA is going to muck it up. How can you tell? Just look at the agency's record when it comes to disaster response. In the past 13 years alone (since Hurricane Katrina), FEMA has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars and repeatedly shown it's not great at, you know, managing emergencies.

Here are just a few examples:

Hurricane Katrina led to one giant FEMA failure. Katrina, which hit New Orleans in 2005, killed more than 1,800 people and caused an estimated $125 billion in property damage. FEMA responded by wasting billions, and in some ways making the situation worse.

The New York Times reported in 2006 that fraud, abuse, and simple bureaucratic incompetence accounted for almost $2 billion in waste. Some of that waste particularly stands out. FEMA spent nearly $500 million on mobile homes that nobody used, in addition to handing out a combined $10 million in disaster aid to prison inmates.

Moreover, as Cato Institute director of tax policy Chris Edwards pointed out in 2015, FEMA officials often prevented private organizations—like hospitals, volunteer doctors, and even the Red Cross—from trying to help out.

FEMA wasted up to $3 billion in 2015. A report from the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Office of Inspector General audited $1.55 billion in FEMA disaster relief expenditures from the 2015 fiscal year. Roughly 29 percent of that money—$457 million—was spent on "questionable costs," the report said, including "duplicate payments, unsupported costs, improper contract costs, and unauthorized expenditures." Then-DHS Inspector General John Roth said at the time that "assuming a similar problem exists in the funds we didn't audit, we are looking at a total of $3 billion every year in improperly spent government funds."

As of 2017, FEMA was still terrible at giving money to the right people. A December 2017 inspector general report revealed FEMA's "lack of process" when it comes to tracking insurance requirements. "Without a reliable system to track insurance information, FEMA risks providing duplicate assistance," the report stated, meaning that "billions of dollars of taxpayer funds have been and will continue to be at risk of fraud, waste, and abuse."

FEMA was completely unprepared when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico when it made landfall last September, killing nearly 3,000 people (much higher than the original government estimate of 64) and inflicting $90 billion worth of damage. In FEMA's own "After-Action Report," released in July, the agency admitted it was not ready for the storm. The Times summed up the problems:

The report says FEMA had thousands fewer workers than it needed, and many of those it had were not qualified to handle such major catastrophes. FEMA had to borrow many workers from other agencies to help it manage the immense demand for essentials, from hotel rooms to drinking water, in the aftermath of the storms.

Although FEMA distributed 130 million meals, 35 million of them in Puerto Rico, the report says the agency took longer than expected to secure supplies and lost track of much of the aid it delivered and who needed it.

FEMA's IT infrastructure is out of date. Testifying before Congress in July, DHS Acting Inspector General John Kelly said FEMA's outdated IT systems are getting in the way of effective disaster response. "Until FEMA provides the IT systems and capabilities needed to meet the demands posed by emergency management, timely response and recovery from disasters will be hindered, increasing the risk of delays in providing disaster assistance and grants," Kelly told the House Homeland Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications.

Right now, it looks like Florence is going to wreck some serious havoc. If the past is any indication, FEMA's response probably won't be up to par.

Bonus link: Click here to read Reason's robust archive on disaster-response public policy.

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  1. FEMA writes checks. Why do we expect any more of it?

    1. Made out to “cash”. What could possibly go wrong?

    2. That and they also collect mobile assets that just clog up acre upon acre of real estate. The bulk of things arrive so late [or in such unservicable condition] that when they go to scrap, they will never have been used. I’d estimate their effectiveness somewhere around the 40% mark, so mainly their job is to stir fry money. But to your point: we didn’t really need another agency just to cut checks, did we?

  2. FEMA’s IT infrastructure is out of date. Testifying before Congress in July, DHS Acting Inspector General John Kelly said FEMA’s outdated IT systems are getting in the way of effective disaster response.

    They are almost done with their update from FORTRAN 77 to FORTRAN 90.

    1. Their TRS-80s can handle FORTRAN 90?

      1. No. That’s why next year the kickoff meeting for the hardware upgrade committee will be held.

        1. But before that meeting, the installation of FORTRAN 90 must be completed.

    2. Where is Robert Hanssen when we really need him?

  3. They have every reason to fail, they’ll just get a higher budget next year. Government 101.

  4. First of all we are talking about the Federal Government and it does few things well.

    Second, I am not sure any country on the planet could ever prepared for a storm of that size.

    It is how many miles across?

    How much rain will it drop over what area?

    How many communities and people will be effected?

    Yes, I know there are folks in some command center that can try to mitigate the effects of the storm after it passes but there will never be enough resources for something like this at the national level.

    It will be handled on local/community at a time by the people that live there like it always has been.

    1. We are our own first responders.

      1. Fist is our very own first responder! Get it?

        1. His heroic efforts totally earn him the generous pension he receives from Reason.

    2. Houston did quite well under Harvey last year, despite being so large that it flooded much of the 500 year floodplain. We weren’t perfect, and there was a lot a damage, but we had competent people in charge and a well designed drainage system. The city as a whole was up and running the next week.

      1. Because Texas and Houston had a competent response. Lousiana, New Orleans and Puerto Rico are run by idiots.

    3. “It will be handled on local/community at a time by the people that live there like it always has been”

      Yes, exactly. In spite of the Federal Gov’t, not because of it

  5. The federal government is better off contracting disaster charities like the Red Cross when there is a natural disaster. Send in National Guard to help with security, if needed.

    FEMA is a blackhole shithole.

    1. The Red Cross is the FEMA of charities.

      1. Too true. The last major hurricane we went through, my wife and about 75 other Baptist Convention volunteers spent 3 days providing food, cooking, blankets and other necessities, watched by 3 Red Cross administrators. The local news reported how many thousands of meals the ‘Red Cross’ provided – – – – – – – – – –

      2. The Red Cross gets undermined by incompetent government.

        Red Cross has been around a long time and is a tried and true charity, unlike some ‘charities’ like Clinton Foundation.

        1. So has the Catholic Church.

          1. Red Cross is not diddling kids like the church is though.

            Red Cross does seem to collect a lot of blood somehow. Better look into that.

            1. Are we sure of this? There is an International Red Cross sex scandal ongoing on right now.

              And then there is the David Meltzer scandal where they fired the guy in secret but then recommended him to other charities.

              1. Anything is possible.

                Point still being charities do disaster assistance more efficiently.

                1. No, the point you were making is that the Red Cross should be trusted because its been around for a long time.

                  1. Otherwise there’d have been no need for the ‘except for the Clinton Foundation’ disclaimer. It is, after all, a charity.

            2. Red Cross is only slightly more efficient than the government but better than nothing in some circumstances. They have far from a perfect history. Did you know that near the end/after ww2, they would quite often boot people into the street seeking medical care because the individual had no papers? Nobody ever talks about that because governments around Europe were so broken at that time that administrative triage was a survival tool: a hospital facility gets stuck with the body when patients don’t make it. If their facilities got stacked with bodies waiting for positive identification from surrounding governments they would effectively be shut down on account of resources being shifted to serving as a morgue, trying to deal with a turnaround time of months to a year getting a nation/family to claim a body. So, yeah… sometimes the Red Cross does show up and “just watch”. It all depends on the size of the disaster.

  6. More than a million people have been forced to evacuate their homes, including everyone on the coast of South Carolina.

    Just what I expect from TreasonNN: Fake News!

    1. Deja vu? “It’s a terrible night for any animal caught unprotected on that plain,” said Francisco d’Anconia. “This is when one should appreciate the meaning of being a man.” Rearden did not answer for a moment; then he said, as if in answer to himself, a tone of wonder in his voice, “Funny . . .” “What?”

  7. I am on the East Coast; not directly in the (current) path but close enough to do some prepping.

    I am NOT planning on any useful help from the government. I expect I will be on my own, at least for a spell.

    1. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

      1. Thanks! My most likely scenario is being stuck at home with no electricity, but I’ll be ready for worse if need be.

        1. Make sure to get a generator so you can keep posting comments.

    2. In Georgia, we gots our canoes, our guns, our beer, and our womens.

      All we need now is our hurricane.

      1. You are truly an idiot. You just can’t help yourself, can you?

    3. 1. Hope things go well for you.

      2. You *will* get government help, whether you like it or not.

    4. The mystics and statistics agree: never expect useful help from the government.

      1. There is no problem so atrocious that it cannot be made worse by benign government intervention.

  8. FEMA had to borrow many workers from other agencies to help it manage the immense demand for essentials

    Borrowing workers from other agencies rather than having them 24/7/365 sounds like a good idea.

    1. Indeed, it’s not likely those workers were doing much of anything useful anyway.

    2. “manage the immense demand for essentials”

      Mostly by keeping essentials out of the are with “gouging” laws . . . . . .

      1. ^This^. Can’t charge more because of the increased efforts/risks involved without risking prosecution.

    3. Spot on. During downtime, they have some basic inventory needs and a communications protocol to maintain. A true disaster is an untrainable event outside of command & control.

    4. No doubt they started with highway maintenance workers

  9. Disaster relief is a state and local problem. It should have never been federalized. When a disaster happens in a place New Jersey or New Orleans that has a third world level state government that is capable of doing nothing except robbing its taxpayers, things really suck. When disaster strikes in a civilized place like Florida, it sucks but things generally work themselves out and people recover. This storm is hitting generally civilized states with decent governments. It will suck and but they will get through it. FEMA will be of little or no help doing that and will accomplish nothing except wasting a bunch of money.

    1. The levees are federal responsibility in Louisiana and once they failed local officials couldn’t handle the disaster. And the levees failed in both Democrat and Republican areas and the powerful politicians that represented those areas in Washington were also from both parties.

      1. Yes and no. Yes, the Feds built those levies. But the reason why the levees failed is in no small part because the local officials were happy to assist the Corps of Engineers in stealing the money that was supposed to go to build the levees. The state locals never gave a damn about the safety of those levees because they were all getting rich off of the Corps of Engineers. So, they are just as much to blame as the Corps.

        And yes, the problem was the levees failed. New Orleans didn’t have a bad plan. They had all of these people who were too poor to evacuate. There was no way you could evacuate New Orleans. Too many people there didn’t have cars or means to escape. So, they stuck everyone in the Superdome and had them ride out the storm. And it worked. The Superdome did fine. Had the levees not broken, everyone would have gone home the day after the storm and it would have been a success story.

        1. That was “fake news” about local officials in New Orleans designed to deflect from the incompetence of the Bush administration and his powerful allies in Congress like Breaux and Tauzin. In New Orleans the levees serve as parks and that is what local officials have control over. I agree with the other part of the comment that nobody believed the levees would be BREACHED most only thought they would be TOPPED and the pumps would keep the city dry.

          1. That is bullshit. Those levees were built long before Bush and the incompetence and corruption of the Corps of Engineers goes back decades. It had nothing to do with Bush. Those levees were improperly built and maintained because the Corps of Engineers was more interested in handing out pork, which made it popular in Congress than they were in properly building the levees. And that has nothing to do with Bush beyond him being to blame for not fixing a problem that was endemic. But ultimately, no President could have fixed that problem because Congress was too in love with the Corps and its pork to ever let a President reform it or hold it accountable.

            1. I agree the levee failures had nothing to do with Bush but they were the responsibility of his most powerful allies in Congress?the Louisiana delegation which at that time was extremely powerful and that includes Hale Boggs (or whatever his son’s name) and Livingston the most powerful lobbyists. Still the Bush response was incompetent so the blame game was all over the place.

              1. Yes, as always in these disaster situations there was plenty of blame and fault to go around. But nobody should let that get in the way of the partisan shitstorm that inevitably follows.

              2. BS Blanco was an incompetent idiot who his and Ray Nagin crawled under this desk. All complete idiots. When state and local officials are incompetent stooges, FEMA cannot pick up the pieces immediately.

      2. That and those levees were only supposed to handle no 100 year storms, which Katrina was.

        If you dont plan for the 100 year storm, then sooner or later that 100 years storm will come and destroy what you built.

        1. That is incorrect. You are conflating topping with breaching. Topping can be handled by the pumps but not breaching. The levees were not supposed to breach.

          1. Then the system is not designed well because clearly breaching of levees happens.

            A second set of levees might be a good idea to back up the front line levees.

            Not building below the water line is another good idea.

            All I know is that I can drive my Chevy to levee…

            1. The breaching only happened because of design flaws. So the levees should not have breached they should have only been topped and then the pumps should have been able to remove the water from areas below sea level. The oldest parts of New Orleans didn’t flood because they are above sea level. So just like sprawl has made parts of Houston prone to flooding sprawl made NO develop land below sea level. Houston’s flood waters recede thanks to gravity whereas NO needs pumps.

              1. The oldest parts of New Orleans didn’t flood because they are above sea level. So just like sprawl has made parts of Houston prone to flooding sprawl made NO develop land below sea level.

                It’s absurd that you can get flood insurance in those area’s, and it’s the driving reason behind why disasters ‘appear’ to be doing more and more damage. That’s an inevitable side effect when you build more and more in area’s that are quite definitely going to be destroyed once every 10-25 years.

                And, additionally, why the fuck does anyone use how much monetary damage a storm does as an indicator of how ‘bad’ the storm was, when those two things aren’t actually directly connected?

                It’s pathetic that people well over 100 years ago were far smarter than we are today about where to build. Our hubris has grown much faster than our overall intelligence.

                1. We weren’t any smarter back then. We just pushed the poor people to those bad areas and didn’t care when they washed away.

    2. civilized place like Florida

      good one!

  10. Katrina was the result of corrupt Louisiana politicians not getting federal funds to improve their levee system. Say what you will about senators like Robert Byrd or Strom Thurmond but had they represented Louisiana in the senate Katrina doesn’t overwhelm the levee system. You would still have had over 200 deaths in Mississippi because the incompetent Haley Barbour didn’t order an evacuation though.

    1. Monday morning quarterbacking on evacuations is bullshit. There are dangers that come with evacuating. For example, during Rita later that summer, Texas panicked and evacuated Houston causing numerous deaths only to see Rita turn east and hardly affect Houston. Barber didn’t order evacuations until he knew the storm was going to hit. I don’t blame him for that. You can cause a lot of harm ordering an evacuation too early just like you can too late.

      The reason why things were so bad in Mississippi had nothing to do with Barber. Mississippi is full of huge pine trees. And those trees fell all over the place blocking the roads. It took days to clear the roads to get relief operations to the coast. And that wasn’t Barber’s fault.

      1. Hurricanes have powerful sides and weak sides and the fact Mississippi was pretty much guaranteed to get the strong side means Barbour should have done more. Contrast that with SC today which is obviously excessive because it will be on the weak side if anything. Any in 2018 the average citizen has the same knowledge as the governor thanks to smartphones but that wasn’t the case in 2005. Also more people have natural gas generators now.

        1. I disagree. They didn’t know where it was going to hit. Also, Katrina went from a cat 1 to a cat 5 in like 24 hours. They didn’t have a lot of warning. And as Don’t look at me says below, if it was that obvious people were free to leave on their own.

          1. Katrina did veer towards Mississippi at the very end but either way MS was going to be on the strong side. In 2005 I worked with a lot of people interested in hurricanes so we tracked it for what seemed like a long time. The death toll in Mississippi was unacceptable?the governor gets some of the blame.

    2. Because nobody is smart enough to leave on their own?

      1. I blame public education dumbing everyone down.

      2. We have smartphones in 2018 but that wasn’t the case in 2005 when you had to be at a desktop or laptop to track the hurricane. Still governors have to reverse lanes and in FL suspend tolls.

      3. Take a gander at the traffic jams when large numbers of people try to evacuate a town in an emergency.

  11. Testifying before Congress in July, DHS Acting Inspector General John Kelly said FEMA’s outdated IT systems are getting in the way of effective disaster response.

    No it’s not.

  12. The free market will take care of it.

    1. Glad you finally agree because the free market always takes care of everything, including socialist government.

      1. I have to admit, for a time I treated you as not a parody.

        1. I have always treated YOU as a parody.

          1. What do you think “parody” means? No cheating.

    2. Socialist governments are much better at disaster relief.

      After you’ve lined up all of the religious leaders, community leaders and Kulak’s and shot or starved them all, you’re down to, what, 70% of the population?

      “Great news comrade commissar, we’ve reduced the amount of disaster relief funding we need by 30% overnight!”

  13. FEMA prep step #1 – Get requests ready for more funding when we don’t do our job
    FEMA prep step #2 – Kick back baby and fire up the tube. It’s showtime!

  14. One thing needs to be said in defense of FEMA. They are under tremendous pressure to do something and do something quick. The problem with spending money is that you can spend it quickly or you can spend it wisely but rarely both. If you want to ensure that every dime of taxpayer money is accounted for and spend in a productive manner, then you need to stop demanding FEMA do something now, because doing it now and doing it wisely and efficiently is nearly always mutually exclusive in these situations.

    Every time there is a big disaster, the media, and the public and the Congress demand FEMA do something and fix all of the problems immediately no matter what the cost. So FEMA obliges and starts throwing money at the problem. Then after the disaster is over, FEMA is left alone with its accountants and low and behold a bunch of the money that was thrown at the problem was wasted and then the media and the public get all pissed off over that. Well, that isn’t really FEMA’s fault. That is the public’s fault for demanding things that can’t be delievered.

    1. Gotta disagree with you, at least in part.

      FEMA’s seen enough hurricanes that they have at least some idea what’s coming, and the resources they need to respond. They can’t plan for everything, but they can certainly begin staging resources that they know are going to be needed.

      You may not know what infrastructure is going to be impacted, but plans to get food/shelter to the affected area should be in place before landfall.

      1. And they do all of that. It just takes time to get on the scene and start working. You can’t do anything until the storm passes. And you can’t store anything in the disaster zone because the storm will destroy it. So, you have to wait to the storm passes and then travel from some area outside the disaster zone. That takes time.

        And FEMA doesn’t get into trouble for immediate disaster relief. It does an okay job at that. Where it gets into trouble is long term recovery. That is where most of the fraud waste and abuse is. And that is the result of people demanding problems be solved right now and of FEMA having no business doing it in the first place. It is one thing to give people water and shelter in the immediate aftermath of a storm. It is something entirely different to be giving people trailers to live in for free for years after the disaster. The whole thing is absurd.

        1. Yeah, I get that. Once power is restored and the roads are passable, long-term stuff should be handled locally.

          1. And as we saw in Puerto Rico, that is far from a straightforward, simple process.

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  16. You left out the part about the “death camps” they operate. Call me crazy, but I don’t want any branch of government operating “death camps”!

  17. I’d like to say something in defense of FEMA. The following isn’t profound but no two natural disasters are ever exactly alike. FEMA is constantly having to reinvent the wheel. The federal government is reasonably good at the things that involves a predictable assembly line process, like issuing social security checks every month or delivering the mail. My $0.02.

    1. I can say that even private organizations fuck up disaster relief, just to a lesser order of magnitude since multiple organizations will provide services so there’s at least a chance one of them will be competent. Not so with FEMA. You get what you get.

  18. Moreover, as Cato Institute director of tax policy Chris Edwards pointed out in 2015, FEMA officials often prevented private organizations?like hospitals, volunteer doctors, and even the Red Cross?from trying to help out.

    Which is especially curious since the Red Cross in particular is probably the oldest government contractor in existence. They’re mandated to provide services without government funding, which is truly a bizarre state of affairs.

    1. I would hazard a wild guess and say that FEMA was not so much preventing volunteer organizations from trying to help out as trying to avoid duplication of services and general efforts. May be wrong, but not just because CATO says so.

  19. First of all I personally just hope that all adhere to the warnings and evacuate in adverse to staying at home with their belongings. Now with that being said, FEMA is by no means perfect but hopefully they have learned from prior disasters that changes were in need and that their should definitely be better use of funds. Lets hope that lives are not only saved but that their daily quality of life and dignity can be maintained by FEMA implementing an effective efficient rescue launch.

    1. Now with that being said, FEMA is by no means perfect but hopefully they have learned from prior disasters that changes were in need and that their should definitely be better use of funds.

      They didn’t learn from any of the previous disasters – as evidenced by their actions when the next one hit. What would make anyone think *this time* will be different?

      1. One may hope that at the least FEMA is coordinating with national and local relief and rescue agencies so as to have the broadest possible range of assistance available. In Texas, for example, S&R and LEOs used the Game Wardens to go into flooded areas that the Wardens were far more familiar with than anyone else. The more we can get of that kind of flexibility the more hope we can have of an effective response.

  20. What new-fangled IT “infrastructure” could FEMA possibly want? Every release of MS Office has Word, Excel and Access, which is more than enough to create databases and lists of supplies, volunteers and contractors, along with their various locations. Pay me $100/hr and I’ll go in and create those databases for ’em… and probably still save them a few million dollars in IT.

    1. The reference to IT suggests that the concern is not with software but with servers, wiring and so forth. That is something I am more than willing to believe.

  21. Just proof the govt is not the answer to everything. I actually saw a lady being interviewed and she was already complaining that the govt was not doing enough, the storm has not made landfall yet.

  22. FEMA’s first mistake: thinking they (or anyone) could tell people “just build and live anywhere you fucking want and we will take care of you”.

    FEMA’s second (and third and etc.) mistake: writing checks to the same idiots in the same place after the same floods and storms year after year.

    Anyway, FEMA’s business model seems like selling cheap car insurance to drunks coming out of bars at 2am.

    1. I tend to doubt that FEMA has anything to do with people building homes in flood plains.

    2. FEMA’s “mistake” is they have to rely on state and local officials to do their work. State and local officials are often idiots (Louisiana/Puerto Rico).

  23. Just as televangelists urge residents to pray to God and Allah, so National Proletariat Radio listeners pray to FEMA to deliver them from the harsh reality of natural weather conditions that have existed for millennia. Ain’t superstition and wishful thinking quaint and loveable?

  24. Oh, oh.

    Here come the ‘it’s because Trump’ articles.

  25. I won’t defend FEMA. They are at best a massive waste of taxpayer money, probably even a hindrance to actual disaster relief. But part of the problem lies with that segment of America that will always say “why isn’t the government doing something”. And by government they mean, of course, the federal government. Sadly, this segment seems to be a large percentage of the population. I wonder what level of shit storm would ensue if a president simply said “Those of you who have built your homes in a hurricane zone need to be prepared for hurricanes. The federal government simply can’t help you in a meaningful way”. My guess would be a category 5 shit storm.

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