FEMA Won't Call the Deadly Arizona Wild Fire a Disaster — And Doesn't Need To


The Federal Emergency Management Administration has declined to declare Yarnell, Arizona a federal disaster area in the wake of devastating wildfires which caused the death of 19 firefighters in June. A declaration would have provided relief aid to those displaced by the blaze and bring in advisers to address potential flooding issues. Already, Arizona politicians like Governor Jan Brewer, Senator John McCain, and Senator Jeff Flake have all severely criticized the federal government for the decision.

There are two immediate political implications to this decision and the ensuing coverage it will get from the media. First, the left will proclaim the incident an example of Republican hypocrisy about government spending. Some will inevitably connect the fires to claims denying climate change. Second, the right will respond by accusing the Obama administration of playing politics with human lives. They will claim that the liberal Northeast is receiving preferential treatment at the expense of the conservative Southwest.

Both arguments will enrage their respective political bases, fueled further by the rants of various MSNBC and Fox News pundits. Neither of these political potshots will address the fundamental policy question raised by the decision, which is the continued influence of sequestration on the provision of government services and its viability as a solution to the spending of government programs.

Between June 18 and July 22, FEMA provided three declarations of fire management assistance for the state of Arizona. In the wake of the firefighter's deaths, it also provided a fire management assistance grant on June 30 that would reimburse 75% of the eligible firefighting costs.

If approved, the declaration of a federal disaster area would have provided federal funds to supplement state-led long-term recovery efforts. Since FEMA "cannot duplicate benefits provided by insurance companies or other federal agencies," the funds would have primarily assisted uninsured persons repairing and rebuilding their homes. According to the Yarnell Hill Recovery Group, nine homes were uninsured. FEMA's statement argued that the state, local communities, and volunteer agencies could provide the necessary funding for their assistance, which Governor Jan Brewer estimates would cost approximately $2.2 million.

At the same time, FEMA lost a little over $1.1 billion in budget cuts due to sequestration, of which a little over $900 million was cut from disaster relief programs. Because Hurricane Sandy occurred during the 2012 fiscal year, sequestration did not affect its disaster relief packages. Between the Sandy payments and other expenses, the agency had around $2.5 billion to use on disaster relief programs for the fiscal year 2013.

In May, President Obama declared a state of emergency for Oklahoma, another generally Republican state, in the wake of deadly tornados that swept across the state. While the dispersal of disaster relief funding continues every day, FEMA had already provided more than $50 million to state recovery efforts as of July 29.

Admittedly, $2.2 million does not sound like much. And even with the funds provided to the state of Oklahoma, it appears that FEMA should have enough in its budget to provide relief for the Yarnell fire victims. It also appears that Arizona has received approximately $50 million in federal disaster aid over the past decade, just like it also appears that the Oklahoma government had sufficient funds to provide disaster relief independently.

All of these factors surely influenced the decision by administration officials to deny disaster relief funding. There is a legitimate case to be made that the Arizona government could provide the relatively low funds for Yarnell relief, but the same case could apply to the Oklahoma government.

We may never know the true logic behind the Arizona decision, but we cannot deny that the billion-dollar reduction in funding only made the case more difficult to approve. It stands to reason that, had sequestration not occurred, FEMA could have provided federal disaster relief to both of these cases. It also stands to reason that had the fires occurred in Arizona first, we could be discussing the withholding of funds for Oklahoma relief efforts. Like all counterfactuals, we may never know.

However, we do know that sequestration represents an indiscriminate solution to a discriminate problem, one that conflates the legitimate provision of government services and the particular excesses of government spending. Disaster relief is inherently a reactive aspect of government. We never think about it until we need it, which makes it prime material for deficit hawks trying to cut funding during times of plenty.

But in times of crisis, of which there are numerous examples from the past two decades, natural disasters have demonstrated that the federal government has an obligation to provide assistance to states struggling against the immediate complications of disaster relief efforts. FEMA serves a critical and legitimate function. Like all federal agencies, it should be critically examined for excessive spending but not indiscriminately crippled from providing necessary services. Sequestration ignores the former but embraces the latter, to the detriment of all victims who hope to rebuild.