Monday, July 17, 2006

Pick One

From the Daily Iowan: Reserve FEMA aid for those truly in need. Relevant quotes:
The tornadoes inflicted some $4 million in property damage on Iowa City, and a large majority of that was covered by insurance (only uninsured damage is counted toward aid). For instance, damages to historic buildings topped $1.3 million, but a $250,000 grant from the state was said to be more than sufficient to cover any buildings that weren't insured. In addition to the SBA loans, $50,000 was made available through the Iowa City Chamber of Commerce to assist local businesses affected by the storm. Unfortunately, there will be some people who did not have insurance and will not receive aid, and the costs to the city for clean up and related expenses (approximately $842,000, or 1.8 percent of the 2007 budget) will likely not be recouped.
. . . .
Both Leach and Nussle denounce the "extravagant wastefulness" of some Katrina victims receiving FEMA aid, asking, in Nussle's case, why Katrina victims were allowed to squander $1.4 billion on vacations, sex changes, etc., while the sober, industrious Iowan is left with nothing. The differences between the two disasters are assumed to be differences in degree, when they are really differences in kind. Katrina was so profoundly devastating that it caused a complete breakdown in physical and civic infrastructure, resulting in chaos that made large-scale scams and waste possible - for instance, the $232,000 for housing victims in a single Texas hotel who weren't really there, more than $500,000 spent on unused mobile-home shelters, and $416,000 spent per evacuee to convert an Alabama Army base into a shelter. It was large-scale fraud such as this and mismanagement by FEMA, not the $2,000 debit cards used to purchase Dom Perignon from Hooter's, that made up the bulk of what Nussle is apparently referring to.

There are countless people still trying to piece their lives back together after disasters far more destructive than those experienced in Iowa City; federal funds should be used to help those far worse off than most in our community. Iowa City has clearly made all but a full recovery - lawmakers' attention should be focused on other issues.

The point is a solid one: what exactly is the role of FEMA? Are we looking at instituting a property version of universal care, phasing out the need for landowners to have private insurance and cities to maintain disaster funds to plan for just such an occasion? Or is it to be reserved for only the truly devastating natural disasters, the kind that surpass the resources of the area? And to what degree should aid be available - is it designed as an emergency patch to get an area up and running again in the short term, or do we have the right to expect the federal government to pick up the entire expense of getting everything repaired or replaced?

Although Iowa City still bears visible scars from the tornado's devastation, I have to agree that it is not the type of major disaster that is totally impossible to prepare against, and while it is regrettable that some of the repair funds will not be covered, apparently due to property owner's neglect in obtaining proper insurance, we do not have the type of systemic chaos inflicted by a Katrina-style hurricane. As far as the abuse of FEMA funds in the wake of Katrina, it would seem more logical to attempt to patch the system to preclude such scams in the future, rather than having each state use them as a lever to pry more federal money for local concerns.

The upshot, as I see it: if you want universal insurance, either in healthcare or property, you have to be prepared to make it a clear goal and fund it accordingly. That will mean shifting the money we all spend in insurance premiums over to a federal tax designed to do the same thing on a national level. It will also mean a fairly large bureaucracy needed to oversee these funds, and all the problems that entails. Or if you want a fund designed to cover only extreme circumstances, you have to expect that some disaster-related damage simply will not qualify for coverage, and there may not be enough money available to put everything back the way it was. You can't expect to have a federal system which is funded as "emergency only" to have sufficient resources to act as a universal system.

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