Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on January 2, 2018.

Big Need

Federal aid claims skyrocket in a year packed with natural disasters


It was a historic year for all manner of natural disasters in the United States in 2017, which has resulted in roughly 10 times as many Americans registering with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for disaster aid than in 2016.

According to a report by the Washington Post, as of mid-November more than 4.7 million Americans had registered with FEMA, compared to just 480,000 in 2016. From 2013 to 2015, the number was fewer than 180,000 each year.

Starting in September, three major hurricanes slammed parts of the U.S. coast and Puerto Rico in rapid succession, killing more than 100 people and displacing tens of thousands. In October, wildfires torched California’s wine country, killing dozens more and destroying thousands of homes.

The claims are expected to cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars. Total damage estimates for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria alone have, by some guesses, topped $350 billion. In September, Congress authorized $15.3 billion in disaster-relief funding. The next month, it authorized $36.5 billion more. And in November, the White House asked for another $44 billion. FEMA has also tapped into private companies and other federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, to add 3,000 staffers to handle the dramatic spike in claims.

In response to 2017’s string of disasters, current and former federal emergency management officials have stressed the need for the public and private sectors to come together with civilians and communities to both recover from these most recent events and be ready for future ones.

“You have to know the hazards and vulnerabilities and how to be prepared, based on where you work and where you live and where you visit,” FEMA Administrator Brock Long told the Post. In several statements and interviews following each disaster, he has urged all Americans to adopt what he calls a “culture of preparedness.”

Similarly, former FEMA deputy administrator Richard Serino said the term “whole community” was coined during his years with the agency, from 2009 to 2013, to describe the need for individuals to take on a greater responsibility when it comes to being prepared for disasters. “We tried to shift the mindset to look at the public as an asset rather than a liability,” he told NFPA Journal. “I think we need to ask how the public can play an even bigger role. Government plays a huge role, but working together with the private sector and individuals is the only way anything is going to get done.”

Serino spoke with the magazine for an article in the November/December 2017 issue, which features a comprehensive package of coverage on Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images