Commentary: In support of President Trump's use of the Stafford Act
AP

Commentary: In support of President Trump's use of the Stafford Act

  • 0
{{featured_button_text}}
Pete Gaynor, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, speaks about the coronavirus crisis in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on Saturday, March 21, 2020 in Washington, D.C.  At right is Admiral Brett Giroir, U.S. assistant secretary for health.

Pete Gaynor, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, speaks about the coronavirus crisis in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on Saturday, March 21, 2020 in Washington, D.C. At right is Admiral Brett Giroir, U.S. assistant secretary for health. (Stefani Reynolds/Pool/DPA/CNP/Abaca Press/TNS)

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.

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

0
0
0
0
0

Catch the latest in Opinion

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

  • Updated

Remember the good ol' days - six months ago - when a Democratic presidential candidate with the adorable catchphrase "I have a plan for that," was surging in the polls? The most endearing part was that her catchphrase wasn't just empty sloganeering. She did have plans. Big ones. Plans underpinned by a righteous moral center. Intellectually, she was heads above the rest of the field. In less ...

President Donald Trump was widely criticized after he said that "I'd love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter." The most important holiday on the Christian calendar, he added later, would be a "beautiful time" to have "packed churches." For some, the president's suggestion about an Easter reopening was a subset of his seeming overeagerness to revive the economy by ...

Suppose Joe Biden is elected president in November, but the Senate stays Republican. Or, suppose he loses, but the Democrats manage to take the Senate anyway. If Americans vote the way they have in recent elections, both those eventualities are unlikely. As the rift between the two parties, and that between their supporters, has grown to Grand Canyon dimensions, Americans have largely ...

  • Updated

Nikki Haley took to Twitter on Thursday to complain about a few items in the $2 trillion stimulus bill that the Senate passed Wednesday and the House passed Friday. She could have objected to the White House's reluctance to spend $1 billion on life-saving ventilators, but that would have put her in President Donald Trump's Twitter crosshairs. She commendably stepped down from the board of ...

Crises understandably spark demands for action. And the bigger and more outside-the-box the action, the better such demands seem to be met. Yet crises also spark panic. Panic, in turn, promotes reckless impulsiveness. Thus times such as these suffer short supplies of sober and careful assessments. So let's all take a deep breath (or two!) and focus on some realities that must be kept in mind ...

The $2 trillion stimulus package passed by the Senate Wednesday night provides enormous loans to airlines and other businesses as well as rebates of $1,200 to most low- and middle-income U.S. adults. But the legislation bars an important group from receiving rebates: elderly and disabled adults who are financially dependent on family members. The result is that the largest aid package in U.S. ...

"Never let a serious crisis go to waste," Rahm Emanuel advised in the midst of the 2008 financial meltdown. It's advice that China appears to have taken to heart. For as the world grapples with how to control a pandemic that has now spread to 175 nations, infected hundreds of thousands and killed more than 20,000 people, China is asserting itself as the global savior that will lead the world ...

People around the world are bemoaning having to stay mostly at home for some weeks because of COVID-19. After just a day or two - even with the internet, Netflix, books, music, games, FaceTime and endless other ways to entertain themselves and stay connected, not to mention walks in the park and trips to the grocery store - many people reported feeling lonely, bored, restless, or even ...

  • Updated

Even as the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States keeps rising sharply, President Donald Trump continues to express confidence. He has gone from optimism in the face of the imminent threat of the coronavirus to suggesting that the pandemic will abate soon and the U.S. economy will be "raring to go" by Easter. Trump's optimism stands in sharp contrast to the recommendations ...

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

News Alert

Breaking News