Watch What You Say About FEMA

National Journal

Politicians decry the Federal Emergency Management Agency at their peril. They never know when they might find themselves shamefully explaining away a misstatement or even a snarky remark about the federal disaster assistance agency in the wake of a big storm. Like now.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney suggested last year in a primary debate that the role of states should be strengthened in response to natural disasters, and that the federal role should decrease. “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction,” he said back then.

Here’s what he’s saying now, through spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg in an e-mail to National Journal. “States should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions. As the first responders, states are in the best position to aid affected individuals and communities.”

(RELATED: Sandy Soaks Up Valuable Campaign Time)

That’s not very different from what Romney said last year, except that the thought of “taking away” anything from the federal government is buried. The final sentence of Henneberg’s note answers the question that everyone is asking: “This includes help from the federal government and FEMA.”

For the record: No, Romney does not favor shuttering FEMA. The only presidential candidate who has made such a suggestion is Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas. (It’s worth noting that Paul also wants to eliminate the Federal Reserve, the Internal Revenue Service, the Education Department, the Commerce Department, the Energy Department, the Interior Department, and the Office of Housing and Urban Development.)

What Romney is describing is basically what’s happening now. FEMA exists solely to support states and cities that need help preparing for and recovering from storms, floods, or tornados. It does not take on that coordinating role in states unless they are invited by a governor who has declared a state of emergency. In effect, FEMA now functions as a big checkbook. It provides money to states and cities that need resources to evacuate people, set up shelters, or sandbag. It also directs money to those areas after a storm to help local areas rebuild and clean up.

(PICTURES: Sandy Sweeps Into D.C.)

President Obama and Romney may disagree vehemently over health care and abortion, but they are in pretty close agreement about how federal disaster aid should work, given their comments about Hurricane Sandy. Both want the states and local officials to run the show. They both say everyone needs to cooperate.

“There's been extraordinarily close coordination between state, federal, and local governments. And so we’re confident that the assets are prepositioned for an effective response in the aftermath of the storm,” Obama said from the Oval Office on Monday. Romney, in solidarity with the effort, cancelled all his campaign events.

(CHRISTIE: Obama Has Been 'Outstanding' During Sandy)

The appropriate balance between state and federal resources devoted to disaster response is an ongoing (and nonpartisan) question. States with the best preparation can direct their emergency activities toward the greatest needs, with or without FEMA’s help. States that aren’t as well set up have difficulty responding to a natural disaster no matter what FEMA does. Emergency officials in both the Obama and Bush administrations have struggled with this balance, especially when states are facing budget crunches.

“FEMA is only as good as the state it works in,” said Daniel Craig, who ran the recovery division of FEMA in the Bush administration and now runs his own disaster recovery firm, Tidal Basin Government Consulting. “The states are in charge. If a state can handle it, they handle it. And if it’s beyond their ability to handle it, they ask the government to come in.”

If Romney were to become president, would anything change? It’s hard to know based on his comments, but Craig offers a hint. “A strong FEMA makes states weak,” he said. “This is my personal view, but if the federal government is strong, the states start to rely on the federal government.” 

If FEMA is seen by states as a default provider of aid, the federal agency can become strained with too many requests for help. Hurricane Sandy is a perfect example. The storm had the potential to affect states up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Where does FEMA go? Atlantic City or Alexandria, Va.? What if the storm didn’t land there? “You don’t want to follow the storm,” Craig said.

Because FEMA doesn’t do anything in the affected areas without consulting with local officials, the state, local, and federal relationship should be almost seamless. Fortunately, emergency officials at all levels of government are used to working closely with one another.

Emergency response is not a political issue. FEMA and state emergency officials are like one big family. Craig is close friends with the current FEMA director Craig Fugate, for example. He knows the state emergency directors from many of the Northeast and Atlantic states. He says that although the hours and challenges of working at FEMA are brutal—particularly on families—he would go back to FEMA in a heartbeat.

“FEMA has a critical mission, and the people do an unbelievable job. People are working over there 24/7 and nobody sees it. The state governments are the same way,” Craig said.

That sounds a lot like the way both Romney and Obama view the agency, which means there likely won’t be much change to FEMA no matter who wins the election.

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