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Experts: Emergency Preparedness Cuts in Budget Deal Threaten U.S. Security

The budget deal being finalized by Congress includes significant cuts to federal grants for emergency first responders.  Experts say the reductions could place the U.S. at risk during a major disaster.

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency, The Department of Defense and the Urban Search and Rescue Team discuss Hurricane Gustav's relief operations (U.S. Air Force)

The budget agreement being finalized this week by Congress includes cuts that could place the country at increased risk in an emergency such as the one that’s unfolding in Japan, disaster preparedness experts say.

They’re particularly troubled by a $786 million cutback in grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to support first responders, a 19 percent reduction from the 2010 budget.

“The cuts undermine the security of the country, as far as disaster preparedness is concerned,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. “A very significant cutback is really inexplicable given what we’re observing unfold now in Japan.”

The FEMA first responder grants have been the primary source of funding for state and local agencies to train for major disasters, according to William Banks, director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism and a Syracuse University law professor. State and local officials are responsible for initiating the critical first response in the U.S. preparedness system, which calls for the lowest possible level of government to manage to an emergency.

“States have very little resources for this of their own—they have relied on the federal government from the beginning,” Banks said. “They have essentially been able to stand up their preparedness activities in the last decade on the shoulders of federal support.”

The federal government is supposed to step in if a crisis is too big for local responders to handle – but as we reported last week, preparedness plans aren’t always clear about how and when federal authorities get involved.

FEMA did not comment on the cutbacks. Since FEMA administers grants for much of the Homeland Security department, including areas such as port and railroad security, it is still unclear how much of the reductions will affect state and local emergency planning. The summary of cuts provided by the House Appropriations Committee does not specify which FEMA first responder grant programs the $786 million reduction is taken from.

A majority staffer with the House Appropriations Committee, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the cuts come from “FEMA first responder grants.” But the staffer said the assertion that the cuts would threaten national security is unfounded.

Several cuts came from programs that weren’t performing well or had failed to spend most of the previous grants they had received, including Port and Transit Security and Emergency Operations Centers, according to information provided by the staffer. The agreement also cut $50 million from FEMA’s National Predisaster Mitigation Fund and $38 million from a fund to modernize flood maps.

Redlener, the disaster preparedness expert, said that while the appropriations committee is obligated to ferret out waste, the cuts were reckless and overly broad.

“I don’t think anyone proposed these particular cuts based on a finely tuned, nuanced analysis of which programs are working and which aren’t,” Redlener said. “This is much more of a sledgehammer set of reductions within FEMA.”

Redlener said the disaster in Japan indicates that the United States has much more work to do to be adequately prepared for a major emergency. This week, the Japanese government reluctantly decided to evacuate some areas outside the initial 12-mile evacuation zone surrounding the crippled Fukushima reactors. Redlener cited that decision as evidence that U.S. nuclear emergency plans, which emphasize preparedness within a 10-mile radius of nuclear plants, need to be retooled – which would require an increase rather than a decrease in support for emergency planning.

One of Redlener’s greatest concerns is that the budget agreement could indicate the beginning of a trend toward defunding emergency preparedness programs.

“These proposals and the bipartisan agreement to move them forward potentially represent where we’re going in future budgets, including 2012,” he said. “If this is the direction we’re going in, I think the country is in for a lot more trouble.”

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