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The Stafford Act

This law dictates the federal response to natural disasters. After Katrina, officials at all levels of government said it needs an overhaul.

Walter Leger
Board member, Louisiana Recovery Authority; chairs the LRA's Housing Task Force

Walter Leger

The Stafford Act has a provision for how you deal with a normal disaster: the typical hurricane that impacts hundreds of homes; a flood in Oklahoma or in Maine or in the Northeast; a tornado in the Midwest; an earthquake that impacts neighborhoods. But it doesn't really anticipate a catastrophe of this magnitude, and accordingly, some of the things that might work on a smaller scale just become incredible burdens on the magnitude that we've had to deal with here.

One of our criticisms has been Washington's been a little slow to, one, diagnose and then, two, treat and actually fix the problem. Whether it's systemic or political or otherwise, it's been too slow.

In the long term, one of the lessons we'll bring out of this catastrophe here in South Louisiana will have been that there has to be some flexibility in the event of another catastrophe this large or larger. Because if a larger community had been struck in this manner and the same rules and regulations were tying back recovery, the impact would be multiplied.

Sean Reilly
Board member, Louisiana Recovery Authority

Sean Reilly

The disconnect has been in implementation. When you look at the Stafford Act and the bureaucratic red tape that it requires, it's stunning, and it needs to be reformed. ...

In the private sector, we can see something that has been destroyed and say, "Let's build it back better." Under the Stafford Act, you pretty much are relegated to building it back the way it was. You get the depreciated dollar, and you get a vision that says, "OK, that was a 40-year-old building; let's rebuild a 40-year-old building."

But the world changes; needs change; communities change; the state of the art changes. What we need is a Stafford Act that allows you to be flexible and say: "There is a new and better way to do health care; let's build that hospital back differently. There is a new and better way to get people across this river; let's build a four-lane bridge instead of the old two-lane bridge. There is a new and better way to educate; let's build this kind of classroom instead of the old classroom."

That is where the Stafford Act is immensely frustrating.

You got the federal government to waive the [requirement that the local community match 10 percent of federal funds], right?

Yes, we did. ... That's another sea change that the Stafford Act needs to go through. Those little mechanisms of loan forgiveness and matching, they make sense in a small disaster. But in a mega-catastrophe, it does not make sense.

St. Bernard Parish, for example, was 95 percent wiped out. In the annals of FEMA's [the Federal Emergency Management Agency's] existence, they've never seen a jurisdiction 95 percent wiped out. That means you have no tax base; you can't make a match. ...

Now, one thing that really aggravated us is the federal government waived the match after 9/11, after Hurricane Andrew, after Hurricane Iniki in Hawaii. It was hard for us to understand why they were reluctant to waive the match in our case, when we suffered the first and third worst disasters in the American history.

Thankfully Congress remedied that, [but] it took too long. Haggling over the match slowed down projects.

David Walker
U.S. comptroller general, 1998-2008; headed the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO)

David Walker

Everybody that I've talked to, all the state officials in Louisiana, ... they all complain: "This doesn't make any sense. It's equivalent to asking me to build back my house with the leaking pipes still leaking." Why is it so hard? There must be some wiggle room, some latitude to allow some of this stuff to get going.

Well, there is a great debate as to how much flexibility FEMA has under current law with regard to the Stafford Act. Many people believe they have more flexibility than they're exercising, and we have some concerns, as they do. They understandably want to protect taxpayers' interest, and they also don't want to be accused of violating the law themselves. ...

Is this just what happens when the [federal] government gets involved?

The federal government is a lag indicator, because the federal government tends to act when others failed to act or when there's a crisis, and because it's the furthest removed from the people. The Founding Fathers even intended that. They intended for the states to be the experimental labs, if you will, and for the states to have more flexibility. So any time you get the federal government involved, that adds a new layer of government. ...

I remember the legislative history on the Stafford Act. It was an amendment made to the Disaster Recovery Act 14 years earlier. People were trying to [rebuild] things better than what they were. The taxpayers felt that their money was being wasted.

There are a lot of details. Let's just say that you had a number of facilities that were insured under the Stafford Act or other federal programs, and let's say that you determine how much money they should be eligible for based upon the existing law. That existing law may say you build it back to prior condition; that's one thing.

But on the other hand, as long as you use that money for a specified purpose -- building back the schools, bringing back the health care system -- if you do it in a way that eliminates duplication -- that puts the schools where you need them, that upgrades the school so you may have fewer schools but better schools -- as long as you're not spending any more money than otherwise you're eligible for under the program, what's the problem?

There are a lot of people in Louisiana that want to know the answer to that question: What is the problem? ... Can we figure out a way to solve this? Can we bend the law to meet the problem?

... That's something that FEMA needs to be pushed on. That's why we have the Congress. We have the Congress to be able to engage in oversight activities, in order to be able to question the executive branch on how they're discharging their statutory responsibilities.

So first, how much flexibility do they have, and to what extent [are they] using it? And secondly, irrespective of that, to the extent there's a problem, let's fix it. What do we need to do statutorily in order to provide a reasonable degree of flexibility to do what makes sense for the future while protecting the taxpayers against abuse? I clearly believe it's possible to achieve those two objectives.

Donald Powell
Federal coordinator of Gulf Coast rebuilding, 2005-08

Donald Powell

You've said in the past that you think the Stafford Act needs some reform. What are you pushing for?

... The Stafford Act is set by Congress, and it's offered some challenges in these types of catastrophic events. This president together with Congress has sent a lot of money down here to help rebuild the infrastructure in Mississippi and Louisiana; it's in excess of $10 billion. And then Louisiana has part of the CDBG [Community Development Block Grant] money, in excess of a billion dollars, to speak to infrastructure needs that would not be covered by the Stafford Act.

So there are challenges there, but there's also the taxpayers. And I recognize the people along the Gulf Coast are taxpayers, [but I] have spoken to that issue, and it's important that it be spent wisely. ...

... You talked about [the federal response] being more efficient. What would have to happen in order to make it more efficient?

This whole notion of the Stafford Act -- someone needs to review that, look at that. I'm a common-sense guy. I recognize some of the rules and regulations and why they were put in, but sometimes there ought to be ways to have some exceptions based upon a certain set of facts. I think this calls for that.

posted january 6, 2009

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