Dr. Coburn Releases Report on the Fleecing of Taxpayers through Disaster Declarations

U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, M.D. (R-OK), ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, released a new report today entitled:  An Imperfect Storm: How the Outdated Federal Rules Distort the Disaster Declaration Process and Fleece Taxpayers. The report details how FEMA’s failure to update critical rules and regulations has led to a dramatic rise in the number of federally-declared disasters and taken disaster recovery spending to new extremes.

“The current trend in which the federal government has assumed increasing responsibility for funding disaster recovery is simply unsustainable,” Dr. Coburn said. “In the past, states have considered the federal government a last resort in the wake of catastrophic events, relied on only under circumstances in which their recovery capacities were truly overwhelmed.”  Today however, more disasters are being declared than ever as states and local communities have become increasingly reliant on federal aid.  At one point this year, there were 33 states with active disaster zones across the United States. Of these 33 disasters, eighteen were for winter storms, where a large portion of the estimated damages included snow removal after a few inches of snow.

A review of FEMA’s process for determining when the President should declare a disaster reveals that bureaucracy and politics are largely responsible for the increasing frequency of declared disasters, not Mother Nature. FEMA primarily relies on a single criterion, the per capita damage indicator (PCDI), to determine whether to recommend that a jurisdiction receive public assistance funding from the federal government – despite regulations outlining a total of six factors in the evaluation process. Furthermore, FEMA has failed to adjust the indicator for inflation.

Dr. Coburn’s report identifies several key issues:

  • Had FEMA updated its per capita damage indicator using the consumer price index from 1986 to 1999, 45 percent of the 175 declared disasters since 2011 would not have been declared.  More simply, it means nearly half of all recently declared disasters would not qualify for federal help because the rules have not been updated for inflation. FEMA has spent over $880 million more in disaster recovery since 2011 than it otherwise would have.
  • FEMA’s process for recommending disaster declarations is outdated and gives an unfair advantage to less populous states.  
  • The current disaster declaration process encourages states to overestimate the amount of damage caused by routine events in order to ensure their eligibility for federal assistance.

“FEMA’s 30-year hesitancy to update [the PCDI] has significantly inflated the number of officially declared ‘disasters’ to the tune of millions in wasted taxpayer dollars. Given the federal government’s $17.5 trillion national debt,” Dr. Coburn said, “Congress and the administration need to reevaluate FEMA’s process in order to ensure the American people that not only are their tax dollars are being put to good use, but that they will be able to rely on the federal government for support in the event of a catastrophes that have truly overwhelmed their communities.”

The full text of the report can be found here.