by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
FEMA must learn how to cope with serial disasters. As we saw with Harvey and Irma, post-Katrina reforms in 2006 improved FEMA’s “surge capacity”—its ability to handle more than one disaster at a time or in quick succession. But Texas and Florida are two of the best-prepared emergency-response states, which made FEMA’s job easier. Puerto Rico is less well-equipped.
Like any government agency, FEMA has limited resources. Its appropriations run out quickly in one disaster, let alone three, requiring a less-than-nimble Congress to vote for disaster funding. And FEMA personnel, who have been doing heroic work, are only human. They are subject to exhaustion when faced with a month of constant deployments and redeployments.
Finally, there is the issue of presidential focus. While Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands reel, the president has also engaged in a feud with the National Football League over recent protests—perhaps not the best fight to take on during a series of natural disasters. This was made worse by failing health-care legislation, a new tax-reform effort and the Alabama special election, not to mention continued saber rattling from North Korea. The White House seemed ready for Harvey, but less prepared to cope with a spate of hurricanes for an entire month.
The lesson here is that presidential leadership is about continued effort in the face of ongoing challenges.