Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Tornado in Joplin: A State Government’s Response to a Catastrophic Natural Disaster

Some things are hard to plan for.  When state governments prepare their budgets each year, they typically have a fairly decent idea of how much they’ll have to spend on things like education, road maintenance, or even Medicare.  However, it can be hard for states to plan their disaster spending given the inherently unpredictable nature of disasters.  Further, the incredibly high costs of disaster relief can significantly burden governments if those costs exceed the set-aside amount.

A report from Missouri’sState Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) sums up the destruction wrought by the tornado:

"[O]n May 22, a three-quarter of a mile wide tornado touched down in Joplin. The tornado tracked on the ground for approximately six miles. There were more than 150 fatalities and more than 5,000 structures were estimated to be heavily damaged or destroyed."

Unfortunately, the probability of tornadic destruction is increasing.  As reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the number of tornadoes per year has been trending upward since 1950, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began keeping more thorough records.  Thus, it is more and more likely that state and local governments will need to understand how best to fund disaster response.  Further, this knowledge can be applied to responses to any sort natural disaster, be it a flood, hurricane, land slide, earthquake, or large-scale fire.  

The response to the Joplin disaster included three basic phases.  First, city, state, and county rescue workers flocked to the area hit by the tornado to treat the injured and help people escape whatever wreckage they might be trapped in.  These workers were funded through their departments as they would be any other day.  Second, work began to help clear the debris and recover bodies from wreckage.  The day after the tornado hit, the Governor of Missouri, Jay Nixon,declared a state of emergency, freeing up state funds to help in relief and sending in the Missouri National Guard to assist in rescue, recovery, and cleanup. The federal government also declared a state of emergency that day, unleashing the resources of FEMA.

The second phase included debris cleanup and finding places for people to live.  According to FEMA, the federal government paid 90% of the costs for three months and 75% of the costs after that to clean up 1.2 million tons of debris from public and private property.  It also surveyed available rental properties in the area for displaced residents, built new temporary houses, and erected modular classrooms to replace the schools.  All-in-all, by November, 2011, FEMA had directed $149 million toward cleanup and immediate relief.  Some of the money the federal government spent directly, and some of it was directed the state.  For example, Missouri received $1.5 million to manage a crisis counseling program.  The State of Missouri, directed by Governor Nixon, paid the remaining 10-25% of the cleanup and relief costs.  Often, the local government is supposed to pay that part, but the Governor thought the state should pick up the tab since the “tornado caused the city to lose tax revenues".

This second phase involved people from all over the country paying for relief in Missouri.  As noted, the state only picked up 10-25% of the tab.  Some might say this type of funding encourages people to live in more dangerous places than they should, especially when considering other more geographically-specific natural disasters like forest fires and hurricanes.

The third phase of the recovery effort is ongoing and focuses on economic redevelopment.  Again, the state, federal, and local governments all provided some funding for this phase. The federal government provided low-interest loans for businesses and nonprofits, the state government considered business property tax relief and the creation of a redevelopment district, and the local government is passed a $62 million bond to pay for new schools.


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