Disaster Cash: Money Well Spent?

by Elizabeth MacDonald

Hurricanes taketh away. And then they giveth.

With hurricane season now in full swing, heartbreaks for homeowners mean early Christmas for Congress, as the number of federally declared emergencies have spiked higher in this country.

That means one thing for elected officials scrambling to hold onto power by using your money to buy votes—loading porkbarrel projects into emergency spending measures to help hurricane areas. And using the emergency measures to pay for all sorts of goodies for bureaucrats.

So not just hurricanes mow down taxpayers—right behind them, a Congressional pork wagon does too.

The way it works is, Congress hides pet projects in emergency spending bills, like those enacted after 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina.

The 2006 emergency spending bill for Hurricane Katrina victims and the war in Iraq were chock full of money for higher education, relocating railroad tracks and for porky things like a “seafood promotion strategy” whatever that is (pork for Red Lobster chain restaurants?)

The “Leave No Bureaucrat Behind Act”

And bureaucrats themselves make off like bandits, too. Just take a closer look at the federal bills to clean up Hurricane Katrina, initially estimated at $82 billion. Much of that expense, of course, was necessary, because Katrina left behind 77 million cubic yards of debris, enough to fill 250 football fields with a 50-foot-high stack of wreckage.

But Federal officials also spent more than $15 million worth of all sorts of unrelated goodies for themselves, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. Millions of tax dollars went toward costly, new, top-of-the-line laptops for other agencies, as well as handheld devices, sporting goods and even steak knives for government bureaucrats shaped like scimitars.

Even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers got a new $15 million museum, despite the fact that this is the agency that designed and built the levees that failed and submerged New Orleans beneath a devastating flood.

"We've heard for decades about waste and graft in Louisiana," says Steve Ellis Taxpayers for Common Sense. But what was surprising about Katrina was “that government bureaucrats” did use “the recovery effort to take items for their own personal aggrandizement."

So What Do US Taxpayers Spend Money On?

At last count, former President George W. Bush said the government would spend $200 bn to clean up Katrina. No less than 12 governors declared their states emergency disaster areas to be eligible for federal aid.

Iowa, Michigan and Utah, for example, states nowhere near the Hurricane, started lining up for disaster relief funds, reported Stephen Moore, senior economics writer for The Wall Street Journal and a member of its editorial board, in a column for the paper in September 2005.

Tax dollars went for lavish outlays. For one, the Louis Vuitton store in New Orleans reported selling two monogrammed luxury handbags for $800 each, both paid for by women with FEMA's $2,000 emergency disaster relief debit cards.

The government also allocated $250 million for "counseling and legal services" for Katrina. Similarly, after 9/11, the federal government authorized tens of millions of dollars for "counseling" to traumatized families of the victims, the WSJ’s Moore reported.

Moore noted that a Republican Study Committee audit discovered that millions went for "peace" and "diversity" workshops, a "yearlong celebration of trees, gardens and other healing places," theater workshops, anger-management classes and multiculturalism programs to discuss "who we are and why we are here."

“Isn't that what churches are for?” Moore asked.

We all want to see New Orleans rebuilt, but it does not follow that this requires more than $100 billion in federal aid, Moore said.

Chicago was burned to the ground in 1871; San Francisco was leveled by an earthquake in 1906; and in 1900 Galveston, Texas, was razed by a hurricane even more ferocious than Katrina, Moore noted. In each instance, these proud cities were rebuilt rapidly and to even greater glory--with hardly any federal money, Moore said.

And take a look at what wildfire evacuees at Qualcomm Stadium in California experienced when the fires of October 2007 destroyed more than 500 homes and 100 businesses in San Diego County.

FEMA’s new approach to caring for victims included providing much more than the basics of food, water, shelter, and clothing.

Evacuees got a free massage or acupuncture treatment. Group counseling sessions and medical checkups were also available, as well as yoga class in the morning and live music—roving mariachi bands, rock ’n’ roll acts, singers with acoustic guitars—at night.

Of course there were hot meals—including kosher or Mexican. There were also tables for candy, lip balm or sunscreen.

All paid for by the US taxpayer.

Congress Increases Number of Federal Emergencies

Taxpayer abuse can only pick up speed as Congress increases the number of federal emergencies it declares. To be sure, distressed taxpayers in these areas must get all the help they can, though the debate is on now as to whether taxpayers who don’t live in flood zones should have to pay to help taxpayers who choose to live in flood zones.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) made about 144 disaster declarations in 2008, which would be the third-highest number of disaster declara­tions since 1953, says the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

The prior record of 157 declarations achieved in the 1996 election year under President Bill Clinton’s FEMA Director James Lee Witt stood for years despite the best efforts of all levels of government to get Washington to foot the bill for as many disaster responses as possible, the Foundation notes.

And President George W. Bush’s yearly average of disaster declarations hit 130 by the end of his Administration—an almost 50% increase over President Clinton’s yearly average, the Foundation says.

Other than during the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson (1965–1968) and Ronald Reagan (1981–1988), every President starting with Dwight Eisenhower has federalized more and more of the disasters that occur in America, the Foundation says.

This federalization of disasters accelerated dramatically during the Clinton presidency as the number of disaster declarations doubled from the first President George H.W. Bush’s 43 a year to more than 88 a year under Clinton, the Heritage Foundation says.

Over the past four terms, the average number of declarations has been increasing at a pace of over 25 additional declarations per term despite the reduction in hurricanes over the past two years, the Foundation says.

At this rate, by 2016, FEMA will be issuing almost 200 declarations in a single year, which should cover every flood, snowstorm, tornado, and fire that happens in the United States, the Heritage Foundation says.

So between 1993 and 2007, FEMA tripled the number of declarations issued each year. As a result, it is responding to a new declaration every three days, the Foundation says. As more resources are devoted to this increased response, local preparedness withers on the vine.

In contrast to the increase in declarations, FEMA’s budget and employees have not grown by proportional amounts. At last count, in 2006, even a year after Katrina, FEMA had 2,000 employees, 500 fewer than in 1992, the Heritage Foundation says.

But as the federal government participates more in disaster response, states will rely more heavily on that federal presence and, as an inevitable result, will be less pre­pared and less equipped to deal with both contained calamities and truly catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina, the Foundation notes.

For more from Elizabeth MacDonald check out her blog!

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