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Listener Questions About Federal Disaster Responses Answered

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That weather system called Harvey that brought flooding and misery to Texas and Louisiana is now just a line of rain showers heading northeast. Now begins the long haul - the insurance adjusters, debris removal, federal disaster managers in their FEMA windbreakers, and the slow, frustrating process of putting life back together.

The origins of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, go back to 1931, the middle of the Great Depression. Here's President Herbert Hoover addressing the nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HERBERT HOOVER: As an important part of our plans for national unity of action in this emergency, I have created a great national organization to cooperate with the governors, the state and the local agencies, so that the countless streams of human helpfulness which have been the mainstay of our country in all emergencies may be directed wisely and effectively.

MARTIN: That great national organization was the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, one of the many organizations that came before FEMA. We put your questions about federal disaster to Cokie Roberts in our regular segment, Ask Cokie, and she joins us now. Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel. Good to talk to you.

MARTIN: Good to talk to you, too. Let's listen to our first question.

COLEEN MONROE-KNIGHT: Hi, Cokie. This is Coleen Monroe-Knight. I'm calling from 20 kilometers outside of Selfoss in Iceland. My question is, what was the very first federally organized disaster relief effort in United States history?

ROBERTS: Well, it actually goes back to almost the beginning of the country. The Congressional Act of 1803 was responding to a devastating fire in Portsmouth, N.H. It's kind of curious that President Jefferson signed that bill because New Hampshire had voted consistently against him for the presidency. But then there were more than a hundred separate bills dealing with things like the Chicago fire, the Galveston hurricane, the San Francisco earthquake before finally Congress passed a comprehensive federal disaster assistance program in 1950.

But in fact, Rachel, we still pass separate bills after just about every major disaster, trying to address whatever went wrong in that disaster. So we have the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act and the PETS Act protecting animals, not to mention the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act.

MARTIN: Wow...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...A lot of Monday morning quarterbacking.

ROBERTS: Right.

MARTIN: So our next question comes from Kevin Russell on Twitter. And he wants to understand the mechanics of how Washington comes up with the money for these aid packages. Right? Like, it's one thing for the president to say Texas, I'll get you anything you need. But how does that work in practice?

ROBERTS: It's a very set up series of steps. And first, local and state governments have to respond. Then, if the governor thinks it's needed, he or she asks the president for federal aid. That request goes to the local FEMA director, then to the head of FEMA, then to the president.

FEMA, by the way, was created by Jimmy Carter in 1979 at the request of the national governors because, then, more than a hundred federal agencies had some aspect of disaster response. And that became painstakingly clear at the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. I covered that accident, Rachel. And I can tell you, nobody was in charge.

MARTIN: OK. That brings us rather seamlessly to our next question.

JUSTIN STAUB: My name is Justin Staub - Allentown, Pa. Has the United States gotten any better over time at budgeting and paying for disaster recovery?

ROBERTS: Well, basically no (laughter). If you listen to FEMA directors, they're not just unprepared in terms of money but also in terms of readiness. The current director, Brock Long, recently said we have a long way to go. In terms of money, the first of what will be many requests to deal with Harvey will sail through Congress this week.

But President Trump's budget calls for major cuts in FEMA is 3.5 billion-dollar budget, plus big cuts from the National Weather Service and the National Flood Insurance Program, which by the way, Rachel, was the brainchild of my father, Hale Boggs. He got it through the Congress in 1968. And I think that the Congress is likely to give it full funding after these disasters.

MARTIN: Your father who, at the time, was the majority whip in the Congress.

ROBERTS: Right.

MARTIN: That's commentator Cokie Roberts. You can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work. You can email us those questions at askcokie@npr.org, or you can tweet us with the hashtag #AskCokie.

Cokie, thanks so much.

ROBERTS: Always good to talk to you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.