Buffalo, NY—Today, Congressman Brian Higgins (NY-27) sent a letter to President Bush criticizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) inadequate response to Buffalo and Western New York in the wake of the violent and unexpected storm of last week. Specifically, Higgins cited FEMA’s lack of authoritative public information about federal disaster relief and the absence of a major FEMA presence in Western New York in the five days since the storm hit.
“FEMA’s tepid response to our region in the aftermath of this debilitating storm is inexcusable and borders on negligence,” said Higgins. “The lack of clear, timely, or accurate information from FEMA about federal disaster relief programs to local municipalities and the general public is shameful and has led to misinformed decision making and widespread confusion. Furthermore, this storm happened last Thursday and Friday. Why is it that FEMA boots will first hit the ground in the City of Buffalo tomorrow? FEMA should have been working with local officials and providing clear information to residents the day after the storm.
Higgins added, “It is wholly unacceptable that the FEMA Regional Director surveyed suburban damage yesterday without touring the City of Buffalo and other hard-hit areas, and it speaks to the unfortunate politicization of this once-impeccably-run agency. This is not the time for the federal government to abandon Western New Yorkers. I call on President Bush to instruct FEMA to quickly answer our questions and get to Buffalo today, before further damage or confusion occurs.”
In May 2006 Higgins joined many of his colleagues on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in introducing legislation to remove FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security, and reestablish it as a cabinet-level independent agency. FEMA, which had been widely hailed for its rapid and through response to disasters under the Clinton Administration, has been criticized as sluggish since it was merged into the massive Department of Homeland Security in 2003.
Higgins’ letter to President Bush attached.
Re: Inadequate FEMA response to October 12th and 13th storms in Western New York
Dear Mr. President:
The response to the storms in Western New York of October 12th and 13th of this year on the part of local governments, the various utilities, non profit agencies and other concerned parties has been extraordinary. The leadership and coordination provided by Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and other municipal executives has been exceptional. What has been altogether missing is an adequate response from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This failure was only made more egregious by the visit made yesterday by FEMA’s Regional Director, in which he surveyed the damage in a suburb with no outreach to the largest municipality in the region or other hard-hit areas. FEMA’s response has been inadequate principally in two regards:
1) The lack of authoritative public information about federal disaster relief.
Chaos and confusion are part and parcel of major disasters. In a disaster, it is the responsibility of competent governmental authorities to provide clear and accurate information to other agencies and to the general public in a timely manner. FEMA has put forth unacceptably little effort to provide accurate information about federal disaster relief programs to local municipalities and the general public, and this has lead to misinformed decision making, and lead to widespread confusion about these programs.
Municipal governments’ lack of information about the FEMA Public Assistance program is a prime example of this. Municipal governments have had to work swiftly to clear their streets of debris, open shelters for those without heat, increase spending on public safety, protect vulnerable populations and meet other extraordinary needs. Decisions had to be made quickly by municipal leaders with regard to the extension of overtime and the hiring of contractors. However, there has been no specific communication from FEMA about which types of expenses would be reimbursable, what types of records must be kept, what competitive bidding procedures must be utilized, or whatever other requirements must be met in order to preserve eligibility for future reimbursement under the FEMA Public Assistance program.
Similar to the confusion which exists with regard to the FEMA Public Assistance program, there is widespread confusion with regard to what benefits may be available under the FEMA Individuals & Households Program. News outlets here have reported that individuals may be eligible for reimbursement for the cost of hotel rooms, generators and chainsaws. You may be aware that even if we were to receive the “major disaster with aid for individuals” designation, which we have not yet received, it is highly unlikely that all but a very few people would be eligible for reimbursement of these costs. It is particularly unhelpful that FEMA’s Regional Director, Mr. Stephen Kempf Jr., would suggest that their would be widespread reimbursement for spoiled food, generators and lodging when it is highly unlikely that the vast majority of storm victims will qualify for that assistance.
A merely competent public information program at the outset of a disaster is all that would have been required in order to avoid the above difficulties. This points to the second principal inadequacy of the FEMA response to the present crisis:
2) The lack of FEMA presence.
This storm happened last Thursday and Friday. The first FEMA boots will hit the ground in the City of Buffalo this coming Wednesday. That is wholly unacceptable. That the FEMA Regional Director would survey suburban damage without touring the hard-hit City of Buffalo speaks to the unfortunate politicization of this once-impeccably-run agency. A FEMA presence on the ground here in the hours after the storm could have addressed the public information needs of the municipalities requiring assistance and of the general public, all of whom need to understand specific aspects of the federal government’s role in disaster relief.
Given the above two concerns, I convey to you the following specific inquiries:
• What specific steps will FEMA take to make municipal governments in the effected area aware of the specific actions they must take in order to benefit from the FEMA Public Assistance Program?
• What specific steps will FEMA take to make the general public in the effected area aware of the potential benefits and limitations of the FEMA Individuals & Households Program?
• Will FEMA personnel participate in the regular status meeting held by the governments of Erie County and the City of Buffalo?
• What specific process will be employed to determine how the $5 million which has already been allocated will be spent?
• Whom, specifically, will decide how those funds are spent?
• Given that personnel from FEMA will be in Buffalo and Western New York on Wednesday to assess this area’s suitability for a major disaster declaration, will FEMA also dispatch someone who can provide authoritative information to municipalities about the FEMA Public Assistance Program and authoritative information about the FEMA Individuals & Households Program to the Western New York news media and the general public?
As a member of the House Committee on Government Reform, I have seen a good deal of data regarding the inadequacy of FEMA’s attempts to deal with various natural disasters. Now that my own home town needs FEMA’s help, it is disheartening to now have first-hand knowledge of that inadequacy.
Please instruct FEMA to reply to this correspondence within the next 24 hours so that Western New Yorkers can have accurate and authoritative information about federal disaster relief initiatives. I look forward to FEMA’s response, and I very much look forward to working closely with FEMA to provide disaster relief to the people of Western New York.
Member of Congress
Cc: Hon. Geo Pataki
Hon. Michael Chertoff
Hon. Byron Brown