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Baltimore’s mayor, along with state and local emergency managers and first responders, didn’t hesitate to speak out against trading disaster mitigation funding for a border wall.
WASHINGTON — State and local officials visiting Capitol Hill on Thursday were already grappling with the fallout from President Trump’s proposed “skinny budget,” which would cut Federal Emergency Management Agency program grants by $667 million.
The document also floats a new 25 percent non-federal cost match from other stakeholders for FEMA preparedness grant awards, similar to disaster recovery grants.
Trump’s administration justifies the cuts arguing FEMA initiatives like the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program are unauthorized by Congress, and the Homeland Security Grant Program hasn’t produced enough measurable results to defend current funding levels.
“I looked at the president’s proposal, the so-called ‘skinny budget,’ and for disaster, it’s a disaster. I guess down at the White House, it’s either got amnesia or no sense of history,” said U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, during Thursday’s House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on economic development, public buildings and emergency management hearing on the National Preparedness System. “We’re going to go back to the, ‘You’re doing a great job, Brownie’ days, as if we don’t remember what it’s like when we aren’t prepared. To cut 25 percent of the budget for preparedness grants, to cut the pre-disaster mitigation funds—that’s whistlin’ through the graveyard.”
“And this is all so we can build a Maginot Line, a wall—some call it a fence now on the Mexican border,” he added.
DeFazio recalled being in Hong Kong while it was still controlled by the British, and they had a 20-foot-tall, double-layer fence with barbed wire and patrolmen who used lethal force. For the right price, a guide could get you over in less than 90 seconds with a ladder contraption the Chinese invented, he said, before asking a panel of state and local officials if it made sense to cut the PDM funding.
A Congressional Budget Office report from 2007 found the program reduced losses by $3 for every $1 spent on mitigation.
“We really need to move away from the current reactive model to a more proactive model,” responded Wendy Smith-Reeve, Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs emergency management director. “And that means shifting dollars to pre-disaster mitigation, our ability to buy houses and infusing resiliency within communities at the local level.”
Arizona has bought out a community on a floodplain and moved houses to higher ground while repurposing the space to mitigate a flood disaster, she said.
U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, acknowledged that FEMA had responded to nearly 2,000 natural disasters and emergencies in the last 15 years, before making the case for reigning in the budget.
“In these times of budgetary uncertainty, we need to prepare to do more with less,” he said, adding lawmakers would have to ensure “we cut the fat, but we don’t cut the muscle.”
“In urban environments you’ll find very little fat,” said Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, testifying before the subcommittee.
At the Army-Navy football game in December, Pugh handed Trump a letter stressing her city's infrastructure needs, and on Thursday she urged Congress to “support the existing menu” of FEMA program grants rather than cutting them or consolidating them into a single block grant.
Trump’s proposed cuts would hurt Baltimore’s ability to sustain or enhance efforts to combat rising sea levels, as well as violent extremism with Urban Area Security Initiative grants slated for elimination. To date, Baltimore has invested tens of millions of UASI dollars in preparedness initiatives similar to those that enabled Boston’s quick, effective response to 2013’s Boston Marathon terror attack.
The president has yet to pick a FEMA administrator, but so far appointees like Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt have favored his barebones approach to funding everything but defense and immigration enforcement.
“We believe that the FEMA administrator should have emergency management experience at the local level,” Pugh said.
Smith-Reeve further advocated for the lengthening of the Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment to include small, rural communities and improve outcomes, and said Trump’s “significant” cuts—coupled with declining state and local budgets—would “erode” attempts to streamline cross-jurisdictional disaster response.
Hamilton County, Ohio’s Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency director, Nick Crossley, defended the National Preparedness System’s Emergency Management Performance Grant Program, crediting it with establishing a “nationwide emergency management support structure.” Without EMPG, Ramsey County, Minnesota, couldn’t have sent personnel to reinforce New York’s disaster response to Superstorm Sandy. The program’s “short-sighted” elimination would substantially increase the need for post-disaster relief, Crossley said.
Similarly, Massachusetts Port Authority Director of Maritime Security Joseph Lawless argued for the preservation of the Port Security Grant Program, a 40-percent cut to which would hinder the purchase of critical infrastructure: radar intrusion detection systems, cameras, active shooter response systems, biometric security, cybersecurity assessment tools, advanced X-ray tech, and bomb containment and disposal robots. About 90 percent of U.S. trade flows through its ports.
“Security challenges are never stagnant,” Lawless said, requesting funding at the $400 million level or else the continued $100 million level favoring ports with the highest risk.
New Jersey Rep. Albio Sires, a Democrat, worried even a small terrorist attack on a port like Newark could paralyze it if Trump’s cuts stand.
U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, a Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the subcommittee, listed public buildings reform and disaster legislation as his two priorities at the start of the hearing with the recognition communities can’t handle every disaster on their own. He emphasized the need for “wise investments” directing resources where they’re most needed, like small, rural fire departments in jeopardy of vanishing and Jewish community centers.
“The threats we are seeing at Jewish community centers across the country, like the Bender [Jewish] Community Center here in Washington, are outrageous and unacceptable,” Barletta said. “This is domestic terrorism, and the full force of the law will be brought against the perpetrators.”
There’s a perception that, as softer civilian targets, Jewish community centers have less security, said William Daroff, the Jewish Federations of North America senior vice president of public policy. Since January, 116 Jewish centers have received 160-plus bomb threats across 39 states.
The Nonprofit Security Grant Program provides for physical target hardening measures at at-risk nonprofits, and “Congress should find ways to strengthen the program, not dismantle it,” Daroff said.
Jewish community centers often can’t afford security enhancements like cameras and fencing on their own, and equally worrying to them is the possibility of a FEMA block grant where they have to compete with, say, law enforcement agencies for funds.
“We believe we’d find ourselves at a severe competitive disadvantage,” said Michael Feinstein, Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington president and CEO.
Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.