- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2014

States have figured out how to game the federal disaster relief situation, costing taxpayers millions of dollars, according to a report released Wednesday by Sen. Tom Coburn.

The Oklahoma Republican said the federal government is increasingly declaring and paying costs for events that not long ago would have been considered normal weather rather than “disasters.”

He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency relies on an outdated formula, which states have figured out how to exploit, to calculate whether a jurisdiction should get assistance.

“The current trend in which the federal government has assumed increasing responsibility for funding disaster recovery is simply unsustainable,” Mr. Coburn said.

There were 33 states with active disaster zones across the United States at some point this year, 18 of which were for winter storms.

A snowstorm in January in Indiana, for example, with about a foot of snow and subzero temperatures will end up costing taxpayers about $13 million after the winter storm was declared a disaster 3½ months after FEMA initially denied the state’s request for disaster assistance.

The per capita damage indicator, a statistical tool that weighs a state’s population with the expected cost of relief, wasn’t updated for the first 13 years after it was first used 1986. Had FEMA updated the tool for inflation from 1986 to 1999, 45 percent of the 175 disasters since 2011 would not have been declared, the report said.

FEMA’s 30-year hesitancy to update [the per capita damage indicator] has significantly inflated the number of officially declared ‘disasters’ to the tune of millions in wasted taxpayer dollars,” Mr. Coburn said.

Because the rules had not been adjusted for inflation, FEMA has spent more than $880 million more in disaster relief since then than it otherwise would have. Fiscal year 2013 disaster relief spending totaled about $18.5 billion.

Mr. Coburn, the Senate’s chief waste-watcher who is retiring at the end of his term, called on Congress to re-evaluate the process. He readily acknowledged that less assistance could flow to his home state, sitting in tornado alley, as a result.

“No state will be impacted by this change more than my own home state of Oklahoma,” the report reads. “However, Congress is responsible to the American people for ensuring that federal disaster aid is available when states and local capabilities have been overwhelmed. This means tightening up a system that is growing at an uncontrollable rate.”

The report also says the process disproportionately benefits less-populous states and that states often overestimate the costs of damage.

It also says FEMA has resisted changing the way it calculates disaster relief, even though administrator Craig Fugate testified in March 2013 that he did not think the per capita damage indicator was the best tool to determine whether a state is overwhelmed.

FEMA said disasters continue to be declared only when they are of a severity and magnitude beyond the capabilities of states or federally recognized tribes.

“We recognize there is always opportunity to improve the manner in which we assess an event’s impact and are conducting a thorough review of the factors FEMA uses to evaluate a request for a major disaster,” a spokesman for the agency said in an emailed statement.

“We have a responsibility — in concert with our state, local, and tribal partners — to help survivors in their most urgent time of need while at the same time ensuring taxpayer dollars are used responsibly. We can do both, and we’ll continue to work with Congress and others to ensure we’re working as efficiently as possible while continuing to meet the needs of survivors and communities when they need help the most,” the statement said.

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