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Episode 54: Disaster Prone: What you get may depend more on where you live than what you lost

October 3rd, 2014

Episode 79 of 241 episodes

This week on the DecodeDC podcast we’re talking to Scripps national investigative reporter Lee Bowman about his story on the disaster behind federal disaster aid. When your house or town gets destroyed by a hurricane or a tornado, you may expect the federal government to step in and help. But whether you get money from the feds may depend more on where you live than on the extent of the damage. The original idea behind federal disaster aid was to help only when the damage and scope of an event exceeded state and local resources. Now we have something called “disaster inflation” – many smaller storms that used to be handled by state funds are getting the national disaster label and the dollars that come with it. The boom in federal disaster declarations by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama is stretching resources at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and costing taxpayers billions. These two presidents are responsible for 38 percent of all disasters declared since the federal aid programs began in 1953 – and it’s not because the weather is getting that much worse. FEMA has come under fire for distributing aid disproportionately, as some see it, often disqualifying serious emergencies in large states while giving cash to more routine events in smaller states. And with so many more national disaster declarations – and with the agency stretched thin – sometimes FEMA spends more to run an operation then delivering aid for the disaster. But politicians love to say yes when it comes to spending money to help people at home. So don’t expect any campaign slogans calling for less federal disaster aid or any changes in how the money gets distributed.