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.