(MintPress) – New research may have just potentially put added pressure on disaster relief agencies. According to a study from the Niels Bohr Institute, when the climate shows signs of warming – as the trend has shown in recent years – the tendency of cyclone and hurricane development increases. For the United States, that could mean a growing number of storms in both the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, which has the potential to further strain the budgets of organizations such as the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Current projections show that the Earth’s climate could warm by an average of three degrees in the coming years, stoking fear that the institute’s findings could predict an increase of hurricane activity in a region still rebuilding from past seasons of active tropical storm weather. Aslak Grinsted, a climate scientist at the Center for Ice and Climate at the Niels Bohr Institute, noted that a warming climate would melt portions of the ice shelf, thus increasing sea levels. He said his research suggests that higher sea levels are a good predictor of storm season activity.
“Tropical cyclones typically form out in the Atlantic Ocean and move toward the U.S. East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico,” Grinsted explained. “I found that there were monitoring stations along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States where they had recorded the daily tide levels all the way back to 1923. I have looked at every time there was a rapid change in sea level and I could see that there was a close correlation between sudden changes in sea level and historical accounts of tropical storms.”
The politics of natural disasters
In the U.S., disaster relief has become a political talking point since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. The storm was the costliest natural disaster in American history and one of the five deadliest hurricanes to make landfall in America. For FEMA, the event put the organization under the microscope for its delayed response and unorganized approach to providing relief for the victims. In 2010, more than 250 families were still living in FEMA-provided trailers in New Orleans.
Alan Krueger, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University, wrote in 2005 that natural disasters have always largely been political fodder. He argued that FEMA has become a political ploy for presidents, suggesting a surge in disaster relief requests as elections neared. Lost in FEMA, he said, has been the long-standing issue of what it defines as a disaster. By laying groundwork, he argued, FEMA could reign in its costs and become a more palatable organization to fund during an economic downturn.
“One helpful step would be to define more precisely the requirements necessary for the president to declare a disaster,” Krueger wrote. “For example, disaster payments could be restricted to events that cause damage exceeding a specified threshold or significant loss of life. Long before Hurricane Katrina, it should have been apparent that FEMA needed to focus more on alleviating and preventing suffering from major catastrophes and less on delivering pork to voters at election time.”
Last year, FEMA was thrust on the chopping block during highly-contested budget debates. In the fall of 2011, Democrats and Republicans sparred over whether it was necessary to reduce funding for other federal programs to help cover the expenses of FEMA. Some criticized the political squabble for being a microcosm of partisan politics as a whole, since FEMA normally accounts for around 0.04 percent of the total budget. For fiscal year 2013, FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund is approximately $6.1 billion.
Whether that budget holds up throughout the time period remains to be seen. The constraints of the budget can often be seen after one sizable event, as was the case last year when Tropical Storm Irene spun up the eastern seaboard last September. In Vermont, the storm damaged 225 homes and 25 were destroyed outright. As a result, President Barack Obama declared an emergency in the state, awarding it millions of dollars of FEMA’s budget. But those within FEMA said their resources were already running low and would struggle to hand out that kind of funding.
FEMA argued that Vermont only received funding because of a weak threshold of what the government considered a federal disaster. Joe Allbaugh, the FEMA chief from 2001 to 2003, said that after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, states have become overly reliant on federal funding after a storm. He said what were once small-scale incidents have now been blown out of proportion and made into emergencies – resulting in FEMA being taken advantage of.
“The problem is, nobody ever turns them down,” Allbaugh said. “We can’t say ‘yes’ all the time. And if we do, we’re just setting ourselves up for no one to take responsibility except FEMA. There is no ability for individual states or local communities to enhance their own capabilities and personnel if you automatically always turn to FEMA.”
Last year, FEMA suspended $550 million in funding that was originally slated for long-term recovery projects to help shore up enough money to pay for the requests Obama was approving. The approval of Vermont’s request made it the 50th declared disaster of 2011 – more than all of the declared disaster of 2005. And the fiscal year wasn’t even half over.
Red Cross budget nears red
Ubiquitous to the realm of disaster relief is the American Red Cross, which responds to an average of 70,000 disasters a year that cover far more instances than FEMA. But the Red Cross is not a subsidiary of the government and only receives funding from local, state or federal governments if they are reimbursements or grants for specific projects. The bulk of the funding comes from charitable donations and participation in the United Way.
Unlike FEMA, the Red Cross operates as separate entities in communities and cities all across the country. Many of those branches have already expressed dwindling resources, and if the Niels Bohr Institute’s claim of increased tropical storms is true, the organization could further be strapped.
The epitome of what the Red Cross is currently going through can be seen in St. Joseph, Mo. There, the Midland Empire Chapter of the Red Cross lost $65,000 worth of grants, with the group saying that drastic decrease would make it hard for the chapter to appropriately respond with the right amount of resources needed. Steve Cheavens, a Missouri State Emergency Management coordinator, wrote that all it takes is one big event to disintegrate funds from the group, leaving it in peril.
“Our region had a pretty sobering wake-up call at the end of 2007 when several of our counties were hit with debilitating ice storm that left some homes without power for nearly two weeks in December,” Cheavens wrote. “We recognized that the response to that disaster was much less than desired. Without help from state agencies augmenting volunteers and medical resources from the Air National Guard base in the area, the results could have been catastrophic.”
Similar stories have been seen from charters around the country since the recession took its toll. In Pennsylvania, the North Central PA American Red Cross has been dealing with budget issues since seeing a decline in contributions and a shortage of volunteers. Kathy Stine, executive director of the chapter, told a Pennsylvania newspaper that if trends of floundering donations and low participation continue, the group will not be able to provide very much for the community.
“The only income we have is what people give us for donations,” Stine said. “It’s going to put a restraint on the services we can provide when people need it the most.”