The tornadoes that tore through my former congressional district that spring day in 1985 took 42 lives, injured dozens more and leveled three towns. Tornadoes are rare in northwestern Pennsylvania, but the three that clobbered Albion, Atlantic and Wheatland, near Erie, left a lasting mark - not just on the residents of those communities, but also on their second-term congressman. A lousy federal response to the disaster spurred me to author what would become known as the Stafford Act.
Thirty-five years after those devastating tornadoes, the changes we authored about how our federal government responds to natural disasters are now being deployed in our national effort to suppress one of the great public health challenges of our time. Some have asked whether it is an appropriate use of the law. As the man who wrote it three decades ago, I can tell you that it is.
When the relief efforts in response to those enormous tornadoes were long underway, I remember sending surveys from my congressional office in Washington to measure my constituents' attitudes about the response.
The Red Cross and local first responders got high marks. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which had established a large presence in the disaster area, scored horribly. Local residents found it to be bureaucratic and limited in what it could do.
The federal government should have provided some kind of safety net but provided little to nothing at all. It seemed to me that if there was any purpose at all for FEMA it was to be a significant source of financial support - certainly in the short term as families literally tried to rebuild their lives.
I was determined to do something about changing FEMA's mission and capabilities, to rewrite the law, but as a second-term congressman who sat on all the wrong committees to address the subject, it would take some time. My argument was that the real cost of recovery after a major disaster is far beyond the capacity of any local district to address.
These are exactly the conversations governors are having with the White House now. The anticipated impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our local communities are expected to overwhelm resources and the ability of the states, localities, tribes and territories to respond, necessitating FEMA's involvement. Back in 1985, those communities could have used money to help remove massive amounts of debris. Today they need it to obtain ventilators, hospital beds and other needed equipment.
The result of about two years' work was to get a bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives to widen the scope and responsibilities of FEMA. It was named after Vermont Sen. Robert Stafford on my recommendation so that we could pass the bill in the Senate and send it to President Ronald Reagan for his signature before that legislative session ended in 1988.
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Thereafter, FEMA's role greatly expanded. It participates much more completely and aggressively than the FEMA that existed prior to those northwestern Pennsylvania tornadoes. And it brings a more orderly and systematic means of federal natural disaster assistance for state, local, tribal and territorial governments as they carry out their responsibilities to help Americans respond and recover.
While the White House's National Biodefense Strategy has languished for far too long, the president's use of the Stafford Act has been entirely appropriate.
I've heard some argue that the Stafford Act was designed to trigger a federal response only from natural disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes or earthquakes. But thinking back to the emotional and economic toll left behind on those communities in my congressional district, one can easily anticipate that cities such as Seattle and New York - which are already dealing with large numbers of COVID-19 cases - will need similar federal assistance, on a much larger scale.
The Stafford Act can only be used at the request of governors and tribal leaders. By proactively approving such requests, the president essentially has allowed FEMA to take control of the disaster response, which can then cover much of the costs for the state, local, tribal and territorial emergency operations. The law was designed exactly for this purpose.
In the aftermath of 9/11, when I was asked to lead a massive reorganization of the federal government as the first U.S. secretary of homeland security, I was privileged to meet and work with many of the outstanding men and women of FEMA. It felt good knowing that legislation I authored years before as a young congressman had significantly boosted their ability to help devastated communities.
Knowing their commitment to our country and to their fellow citizens, I have every reason to believe FEMA will be there yet again, to provide the needed assistance to those communities hit hardest by this public health crisis.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Tom Ridge, former governor of Pennsylvania and U.S. secretary of homeland security, co-chairs the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense.
Visit New York Daily News at www.nydailynews.com
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