FEMA as a Four-Letter Word

Posted: April 13, 2010 in Justice

Professor Linden’s Advanced Torts Seminar is what we call a “paper class,” which means that the final grade is based on a research paper instead of a semester-end final exam. This class meets Pepperdine’s writing requirement for graduation, but this is already the third time I’ve met the writing requirement. I signed up for this seminar because of my interest in the subject matter.

The hard part is picking a topic for your paper, but early on I realized I wanted to do something involving torts and disasters. It was harder to narrow it down from that than I expected, but what eventually emerged was a paper I entitled, “A Lesson in Frustration: Hurricane Katrina and FEMA’s Immunity in Post-Disaster Relief.”

Today is my day to present my paper in class, and I’m actually looking forward to it. My only drawback is that I only have thirty minutes, and I could talk about Hurricane Katrina forever, a fact that many have unfortunately learned firsthand.

Hurricane Katrina brought many highs and lows, but among the lows, FEMA reigns supreme.

You’d think it would be the insurance companies. I mean, I will never like Allstate no matter how many SEC football games they sponsor, but I totally understood them throughout my personal disaster. They wrote my policy to keep from paying for flood damage, and I bought it. My local agent was helplessly nice, and my adjuster did what he could with what he had to work with. The corporate entity acted with the compassion of a snake, and every time I see commercials claiming I’m in good hands, I want to puke. But still, I understand their game.

But, FEMA. Hurricane Katrina was the greatest natural disaster in American history. FEMA may have been the greatest artificial one.

Okay, I won’t restate my old FEMA stories. Let me cut to the chase.

My paper has revealed to me a somewhat interesting question. Let me get at it this way. If FEMA never existed (and truth be told, I didn’t know about it pre-Katrina), I wouldn’t have known the difference (other than using far fewer curse words). When I heard about FEMA in those memorable days following the storm, what I “felt” was that I needed to contact the agency. That they had property (think: money) that was rightfully mine, and that I needed to claim it.

So…

One of the issues the courts have wrestled with since Katrina is whether or not there is a “property interest” in the post-disaster relief provided by FEMA. And the answer has been mixed.

So here’s the actual question: Are FEMA’s benefits to be expected by Americans in disaster zones, or are they discretionary? In other words, is FEMA required to provide help or not?

From my firsthand experience, it felt as if there were benefits that I “should” claim because, well, how tacky would it be to beg (which is what we did) when you have access to funds that are just waiting for you to pick them up.

It is an interesting debate. I have friends that believe the federal government should basically stay out of everything. (Well, I don’t think they really believe that, but that’s it for the most part.) (And, ironically, I think many friends that have this perspective in the Katrina zone were in line to pick up their checks from the federal government, too.) I have other friends that, subject to gross oversimplification again, think the federal government should be there for everyone.

But the real question is this: Do we really want a federal agency in charge of providing assistance in disasters that overwhelm state and local governments if that federal agency can choose to provide help or not based entirely on their own discretion?

I vote “no” on that one, and I’m goofy enough to think that both sides should be able to agree. I mean, does anyone want a federal disaster management agency that can sit on its butt and never help anyone if it didn’t want to?

And if we agree, the worthwhile debate becomes whether or not we want to have a FEMA in the first place. From my personal experience, my vote is split: a wholehearted Yes if it will be held accountable for its actions, and an equally wholehearted No if it will not.

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