Routine Emergencies

Mark Steyn, in a bit of delayed reaction to the news that the Obama inauguration has been declared an “emergency,” (the hazards of writing a regularly scheduled column rather than a blog, I suppose) decries “our permanent state of routine emergency.”

The Cato Institute’s James Bovard was struck by the plight of Vernon, Conn., a town ravaged in the winter of 1995-96 by, er, slightly more snow than they’d expected. So FEMA sent them a check for $40,023. Vernon had 30,000 people, and its town snow-removal costs that winter were $258,000. “That’s just $8.60 per person,” Bovard pointed out, “less than a 12-year-old charges to shovel out a driveway after a good snowfall.”

So why did they need “federal emergency” aid? Because the town had only budgeted $104,516, and so claimed to be “overwhelmed” by the additional costs. They could have asked the good burghers of Vernon to chip in an extra five bucks apiece. But why bother when FEMA’s so eager to give you a warm bath in the federal love nectar? The town government wised up pretty quickly. The next winter, they set the snow-removal budget at just $69,383.

So a “federal emergency” is no longer a nuclear strike on Cleveland or even a Category Three hurricane, but now a snowfall in New England and an inaugural ball at the Mayflower Hotel. As Mister Incredible shrewdly observes to his kid in “The Incredibles,” when everybody’s special, nobody is. Likewise, when everything’s an emergency, nothing is: We live in a permanent state of routine emergency.

The metastasization of FEMA teaches several lessons — the first and most obvious being that any new government program, agency or entitlement will always outgrow whatever narrow purpose it was created for.

But, of course, you knew that.

Photo by Flickr user Ben+Sam used under Creative Commons license.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. James says:

    Actually, George W. Bush declared the emergency so that they could recover some of the costs of security.

    But don’t let reality prevent you from nursing every little resentment.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Umm, yeah, that was covered in the linked post. So what? That’s not an emergency, any more than a couple of extra inches of snow overtaking the budget is an emergency.

  3. James says:

    The declaring of an emergency, for the federal government, is meant to be a mechanism to set a number of procedures in motion, and to suspend other types of procedures, in order to expedite the allocation of resources with a minimum of delay and bureaucracy.

    It was never meant to precipitate the running through the streets, arms waving, screaming EMERGENCY!!!! EVERYBODY RUN FOR THEIR LIVES!!!!

  4. JKB says:

    Perhaps you’ve heard the story about the little boy who cried wolf?

    Declaring an emergency every time you need to circumvent normal procedures to cover earlier poor planning, pretty much makes everything an emergency. It is not as though the inauguration was unexpected and couldn’t be planned for in the DC budget. They could even have asked Congress to set aside funds to tap should the event become larger than normal.

  5. superdestroyer says:

    I do not believe that the declare an emergency. Under the national response plan,, it is now an incident of national significant. It allows for one person (the lead federal official) to be put in charge and for all other organization to answer to them.

  6. ptfe says:

    Of course, Steyn’s very premise is ridiculous, especially when there are immediate costs. He apparently thinks that towns should just hang around waiting for unpredictable events, then go begging when they need money. In Steynland, maybe that works; in reality, it doesn’t. It shows a stunning lack of understanding of human psychology and budgeting. Unfortunately, when it comes to donations, when the need arises for something like this, it’s usually a few days (or months) late if not also a lot of dollars short. Alternatively, one can turn the donation into a mandatory and preemptive payment; that’s known as a tax.

    And while it would be great if cities would budget reasonably for each year, Vernon, CT, isn’t and wasn’t alone in its lowball for snow removal. Then again, it also wasn’t incorrect in FY-1996 when it came up with a different (smaller) number: the town got almost no snow that winter, thus having a budget surplus. Which, I’m sure, Steyn would have equally cried about had he had to pay taxes for.

    Such atrocious reasoning is bolstered by his case against Vernon:

    (1) “…[S]lightly more snow than they’d expected.” Apparently, Mr. Steyn (as well as Mr. Bovard) feels that getting 2.5x the normal amount of snow is “slightly more” than normal. The numbers are available here: Cornell University snowfall data sheet, 1995-96. Note that the amount of snowfall eclipsed the previous record by about 30″ — 2.5 feet, and some 40% more than they’d ever gotten. It’s not so much what you normally think of as an “emergency”, but that counts as wildly aberrant. Most places prefer to budget for realistic events.

    (2) FEMA’s budget in the late 90s was pretty static around $3.5b. I’m not so great at math perhaps, but that means that, on average, each person in the U.S. paid less than $14 for FEMA to operate. Which is about what it costs to hire Bovard’s kid to shovel twice. That covered all “emergency” actions that year, including sending 0.1 cents each to Vernon, CT, to plow its roads. I’m sure Mr. Steyn found a penny that year, in which case, had he sent it to FEMA, he could have supported 10 Vernons. [Note that Pres. Clinton appropriated tens of billions of extra dollars throughout his time in office to manage disasters; even that total puts the cost to Mark Steyn at less than $30/year. Is that a donation he’s willing to make?]

    (3) Vernon was not individually declared a federal disaster area, it was part of a 16-state region that got the distinction. Aside from the snowfall, the area was hit with major flooding when the snow, as it is wont to do, melted. But Vernon was reimbursed for plowing the interstate highway that runs through it, also known as I-84. They normally get jack for doing that job.

    If you’re going to shoot for an instructive example, this is exceedingly poor. Bovard’s original article was a discussion of the low accountability at FEMA, which was far more relevant and realistic; Steyn just shows he has a really dull axe to grind, and he’s opted for a belt sander with 220 grit.

    As for the inauguration, JKB’s suggestion that Congress “set aside funds” is, for all practical purposes, identical to simply declaring an emergency, with one major disadvantage: declaring an emergency gets you the needed funds, but it also comes with federal personnel that would otherwise be inaccessible. While the inauguration may not be an “emergency”, it certainly falls into the “preventative” category (yes, that’s part of FEMA’s job) when you put millions of people together the Mall. The previous inauguration record was closer to 1.2 million, and the last two party changes have been around 800,000 and 600,000. Obama’s is expected to bring 2-3x as many — though that might just be “slightly more” than normal.

  7. just me says:

    Umm, yeah, that was covered in the linked post. So what? That’s not an emergency, any more than a couple of extra inches of snow overtaking the budget is an emergency.

    James while I am not a huge fan of declaring states of emergency for something any New England state can reasonably predict (snowfall) and budget for, it was far more than a couple of extra inches of snow that hit our region last year.

    And around here it wasn’t the large cities that were struggling to clear roads, but the small towns where a few extra snow storms with significant snowfall did break the budgets.

    It didn’t help though, that the previous years had winters with light snow fall and a lot of towns started moving the money for the plow budget into other areas. I am also not surprised though that a city that got a bail out last year decided to budget even less this year in hopes of another big bail out.

  8. jabberwock says:

    If FEMA’s response with funds for the “emergency” in DC is anything like the response to widespread flooding in New York in June of 2006 ( still waiting), the DC government best take out a short term loan to cover the costs.

  9. James says:

    I’m glad the anti-government crazies will no longer be in charge after Tuesday. When one’s extreme ideology begrudges even the clearing of snow from the highways, it’s time to take the reins away and maybe set them out to pasture somewhere. Otherwise known as a “funny farm.” Sheesh.

    Guess what? City governments can’t just ask everyone to take an extra five dollars out their pocket to help clear the roads. Let alone county governments. How would they do that, legally? What about the folks who didn’t want to fork over? Let them slide? Send them to jail? We all know it is these anti-tax fanatics that would be the first to refuse to fork over. Forbid them to use the roads? That would be nice, but it sounds unenforceable to me. So what? Leave the roads unplowed? How would people get to work? Get their goods to market?

    Okay, so budget for an average snowfall, so the anti-taxers don’t get overtaxed, and in years where there is too much snow for the budget, go ahead and leave everything unplowed, since it’s not an “emergency.” People will just have to wait out the winter in their homes, no stores open, can’t get to work, no one to repair the power lines that went down or bring heating fuel, no police or fire, then wait for the snow to melt before dragging all the bodies out of their homes in the spring. Yeah, that’ll work.