FEMA Weathers Storms both Natural and Political

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Summer has not yet begun and it’s already been an alarming weather year for the United States. A reported 1,384 tornadoes and floods have torn across, upended and destroyed many communities in Arkansas, Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee and Massachusetts. Even areas where populations are relatively used to these severe seasonal events have suffered stunning devastation.

Among the federal, state and local agencies and non-governmental organizations that respond to such tragedies as part of their core missions, none presents a higher profile than the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a major component of the Department of Homeland Security.

In spite of its hefty footprint, FEMA is careful to partner with states and other entities when disasters occur. “FEMA is not the team. FEMA is just one part of a team that includes the entire federal family, state, local and tribal officials, the faith-based and non-profit communities, the private sector and most importantly, the public,” said Mary Olsen, FEMA news desk manager, Office of External Affairs.

This year, many people in the hardest hit areas are part of vulnerable populations, including clusters of majority-Black communities. Some critics decried the government’s response to predominantly Black areas in Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina and Louisiana that were subjected to federal review for emergency assistance.

“As we know from its history, like other government agencies, FEMA has never fully responded to Black people who have lived in the wake of storms, violence, or health hazards produced by factories that are poisoning the atmosphere,” said Molefi Asante, a professor at Temple University and the most published African-American scholar.

Despite the fact that there have been over a thousand natural catastrophes, President Obama only issued 37 disaster declarations. When FEMA denied the disaster designation request by Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, following deadly storms and tornadoes that ripped through the state on April 15, Congresswoman Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.) immediately took action.

“I am very disappointed in FEMA’s decision to deny federal disaster assistance to Alabama and to the victims of the deadly storms that ripped through our state last week,” wrote Sewell to FEMA on April 22. “This decision places additional burdens and worries upon already hurting families and ignores the enormous costs to our state and local governments that are already struggling.”

FEMA maintained its position not to declare disaster areas for well-known Black populated counties such as Choctaw, Tuscaloosa, Greene, Hale, Marengo and Sumter. Two weeks later, the area experienced back-to-back storm and tornado devastation. FEMA was forced by nature to declare a disaster.

This response has raised concerns within the Black community, that bears harsh memories of FEMA’s response to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster. Now, more Blacks view the agency’s activities with skepticism. Many believe FEMA’s inability to manage a disaster of that magnitude is just cause to shift direction.

"FEMA's response to the Katrina tragedy underscored to the world the American government's callous attitude about the conditions of Black people. FEMA forever etched into history a negative reaction among most thinking people,” said Molefi.

Facing criticism about declarations or response is not the only cloud looming over the agency. Congressional Republicans have recently proposed to cut, as part of the continuing resolution, funding for FEMA management by $24.3 million in the FY2011 budget and to yank $783.3 million from FEMA state and local programs. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky) publicly stated, “We can’t be subsidizing local governments to cope with flooding and tornadoes to the extent we have.” Kentucky has been declared a federal disaster area.

While the battle continues about FEMA’s fate, jurisdictions from previous disasters are still requiring funds. Last year, FEMA was forced to stop providing subsidies for recovery efforts for five months to states across the U.S. due to budget cuts.

Are you ready for a natural catastrophe? Check out the FEMA website at www.ready.gov as a valuable resource for information on how to stay safe when nature turn treacherous.