Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Federal Disaster Response - Keeping An Eye on the President and the Governors

Updated May 21, 2013

With the right side of the American political spectrum demanding less federal government involvement in every aspect of American life and, in light of Hurricane Sandy and the recent tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, it's time to take a brief look at federal disaster relief.

The federal disaster response system harkens back to September 1950 when Congress approved the Federal Disaster Relief Act, designed to provide limited assistance during disasters, largely designed to prove to the USSR and the American public that a nuclear war was survivable.  Blurred lines between wartime civil defense and natural disaster reliefs caused problems, particularly since the Cold War was in full swing and protection of civilian populations from foreign attack seemed more critical.  In 1961, President Kennedy separated civil defense into two agencies; the Office of Civil Defense under the Department of Defense that was responsible for shelters and stockpiling and the Office of Emergency Planning (which became the Office of Emergency Preparedness in 1968) which was responsible for civilian preparedness including disaster relief.  Within Housing and Urban Development, the Federal Insurance Administration was created in 1968 to provide flood, riot and crime insurance.  In 1979, the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA was established bringing together dozens of agencies under one banner.  The passing of the Stafford Emergency and Disaster Relief Act in 1988 provides orderly assistance from the federal level to both state and local governments with a mandate to provide relief from hardships related to disasters.  In March 2003, FEMA became an agency of the Department of Homeland Security after national security from terrorists became a headline issue.  After the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, Congress amended the Stafford Act, allowing accelerated federal assistance without a state request when the president declares a "major disaster" and action is necessary to prevent further suffering.  Even included in these legislative changes was assistance for individuals with pets and service animals.

Under Title V of the Stafford Act, State Governors must specifically request assistance from the President when they deem an emergency to be beyond their management capabilities.  The federal share of costs in this case is no less than 75 percent of total costs to a maximum of $5,000,000 unless the President determines otherwise.  Funds are designated to repair, restore or replace public facilities of all types.  Funds can also be used for emergency assistance including overtime payments for response personnel.  Assistance for debris removal is also provided but only for debris on public lands, for example, roads may be cleared of debris to allow the public access to their homes.  Once the request is made, the Federal Emergency Management Agency manages all aspects of the federal response including assistance for such items as repairing of infrastructure, crisis counseling, unemployment assistance etcetera.  While the Stafford Act mandates a 75 percent assistance rate as a minimum,  cost-sharing of FEMA's response can be adjusted by the President.

The Stafford Act does not provide Americans that are displaced by a disaster the ability to participate in government decisions that affect the recovery.  In addition, any replacement housing, healthcare and education is done solely at the discretion of the federal government, it is not a requirement.  A study by William C. Banks notes the following additional problems with the current system:

1.) Actual emergency response tends to be more chaotic than it is hierarchical.

2.) America's urban communities are more interconnected with vulnerable modes of transportation, communication and public utilities.  This lack of resilience makes America's infrastructure very vulnerable to both natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

3.) The federal government has provided states and local governments with poor planning and confusing mandates, paying disproportionate attention to less likely terrorist attacks than to more likely natural disasters.

4.) Coordination plans are generally untested and there is no assigned leadership to manage the coordination (right, Brownie?).

Here is a map from FEMA showing which states are currently experiencing or have recently experienced an active disaster:

In looking through the list of disasters under management, FEMA assistance is being granted in cases where states require assistance related to forest fires, flooding, tornados, severe storms and winds.

For 2013, the Department of Homeland Security requested a budget of $39.5 billion in net discretionary spending.  An additional $5.5 billion was requested for the Disaster Relief Fund.  FEMA's budget request was for $13,559,716,000 with a net discretionary amount of $10.009 billion after fees and trust fund inputs.  In 2011 alone, FEMA obligated $5.6 billion in Individual Assistance, (housing, crisis counseling, legal services and unemployment assistance) and Public Assistance (clearing debris and rebuilding infrastructure).

Interestingly, state governors are more likely to request federal aid in election years, particularly when they happen to head a swing state but not when they cannot stand for re-election.  A study by John T. Gapser and Andrew Reeves states the following:

"While all governors request as a function of need, opportunistic governors request because they anticipate the president will be more likely to give them aid. This expectation is based on states’ electoral importance to presidents. Given conventional political wisdom supported by academic research, we assume that an opportunistic governor acts with the knowledge that presidents use disaster declarations to gain votes; this will cause these governors’ requests to be influenced by presidential electoral incentives.".

Governors will even request aid when it will help the other party's incumbent; this was apparent at New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's press conference where he appeared to be quite pleased with the response of President Obama, the issue that may well have won the election for the current President.

That's how important federal disaster relief can be during election cycle years!

The Widespread Impact of Sandy

How do you know when the situation is critical?  When this is what you get when you try to access Huffington Post:

Apparently, Sandy's impact is wider than what we first thought.  As an aside, even though large parts of the Northeast is underwater, Governor Malloy's advice not to wade through any water might be hard to obey.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Long Island Express of 1938

While Hurricane Sandy looks like "the storm of the century" according to the mainstream media, another fall hurricane that hit coastal northeast United States was a record-breaker in its time.

The Long Island Express Hurricane of September 21, 1938 was, to that point in time, the costliest natural disaster to ever hit the United States.  This category 3 hurricane caused storm surges of between 12 and 25 feet above mean low tide throughout the coastal communities of New England, resulting in the loss of over 690 lives. 

Weather forecasters at the time expected that the Long Island Express would head toward the northeast and  avoid the east coast of the United States, turning further out to sea.  Unfortunately, once the storm reached the latitude of Cape Hatteras where it was expected to turn, the forward motion of the hurricane took it due north toward Long Island.  This hurricane moved very quickly, reaching speeds of between 60 and 70 miles per hour as it approached the shorelines of Connecticut and Long Island.  By comparison, Hurricane Sandy is approaching the continental United States at less than 30 miles per hour.  The first landfall of the Long Island Express occurred over the central part of Long Island at which time the eye of the hurricane was up to 50 miles wide.  Barometric pressures reached a low of 27.94 inches or 946 millibars in Bellport, New York, slightly higher than Sandy's current 940 millibars.  Steady wind speeds peaked at 121 miles per hour in Milton, Massachusetts and 87 mph in Providence, Rhode Island before the station's anemometer was destroyed.  Overall peak wind gusts reached 186 miles per hour.  At the top of the Empire State Building, wind gusts of 120 miles per hour were recorded compared to "only" 60 miles per hour at ground level in Central Park.  Rainfall amounts were relatively tame  on the east side of the hurricane's track with Bridgehampton on Long Island receiving 4.32 inches in total in a single day.  On the west side of the track, two inches of rain per hour fell and over 17 inches of rain fell in the four days prior to and during the hurricane.  Rivers flooded to record levels, resulting in the drowning of many additional victims. 

Here is a map from the United States Department of Commerce, Weather Bureau showing the track of the Long Island Express:

Here is some old footage showing the impact of the Long Island Express on coastal New England:

Interestingly, when the tidal surge hit the shores of Long Island in the mid-afternoon of September 21st, seismographs in Alaska registered the impact.

Here are two pictures of the damage resulting from the winds and storm surge:

After the storm, the beach in Westhampton, Long Island was destroyed and of the 179 homes along Dune Road, only 26 survived.  Just in case you were wondering if history has taught us anything, here is the setting for a $6.25 million home located along the same stretch of beach:

Total damage from the Long Island Express surpassed $400 million in 1938 dollars ($6.446 billion in current dollars).  Many experts blame the high death toll on poor forecasting of the storm's track.

Unfortunately, with much higher population density along the northeastern seaboard today than there was in 1938, the  damage to property from hurricanes could be far greater.  As well, when one looks at the density of housing located just above the high tide mark, lessons about what happens when you build at sea level from the past seem to have gone unlearned, an issue that may become even more apparent if global sea levels continue to rise.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Voting for Jesus in 2012

Here's an oldie but a goodie from Fox News and Bill O'Reilly:

Just in case you wondered who Bill Keller is, he's a Florida-based televangelist who founded the Live Prayer website, the world's first global prayer meeting with over 2.4 million subscribers.   While he has a strong anti-homosexual agenda, he also feels that homosexuality is no more of a sin than gluttony and says the following about overeaters:

"I mean, Christians who think they're holier than thou think nothing about going to church, then after church going down to, you know, the Cracker Barrel, eating 8,000 calories worth of garbage and wobbling out in their big fat stomachs…if you start preaching about gluttony, half the people are going to walk out. The other half that's there, half of them can't walk out because they're too big. And they're certainly not going to put $10 in the basket whenever it's passed."

Ah yes, the all important $10 in the basket!  Whatever would all of those televangelists do without all of those $10 bills?
Keller has set up a website urging Christians to cast a write-in ballot for Jesus Christ in 2012.  According to his Vote for Jesus website, he has nearly 1.6 million people that have committed to write in Jesus' name on their ballot for the following reasons:
1.) President Obama has proven by his words and deeds to be a true enemy of God as detailed in James 4:4. He has been the most pro-death President in history, supporting the legalized slaughter of innocent babies here and around the world, he is a staunch advocate of the radical homosexual agenda, and he has been a great friend to the enemies of Israel. On every major spiritual issue of the day, President Obama has proven to be an enemy of God and a true tool of Satan!
2.) Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is a 5th generation member and a priest in the satanically inspired Mormon cult. He and others in his cult LIE when they claim to be Christians, since Mormon doctrine is 100% inconsistent with Biblical Christianity and a Mormon is no more a Christian than a Muslim is. He deceives people by saying he believes in "God" and "Jesus" is his savior, when the "god" of Romney's cult is NOT the God of the Bible, and their "jesus" is NOT the Jesus of the Bible. Romney and those in his cult believe the Bible to be a flawed and incomplete book and look at Biblical Christians as inferior and non-believers for rejecting the beliefs of their cult.
Apparently, unlike many other Evangelical Americans, Mr. Keller does not view Governor Romney as "the enemy of my enemy is my friend".  He is plainly and simply the enemy.
Now, I ask you, why would you vote for the Democratic or Republican Satan when you can cast your vote for Jesus and cut out the middleman?