NEW ORLEANS – The tornado hit the suburbs of east New Orleans at lunchtime on a mild Tuesday in February.
It spun across midcentury ranch houses still etched with the spray-painted symbols that search and rescue squads left after Hurricane Katrina. At its calmest, the tornado tugged at asphalt shingles. At its most vicious, it flipped parked cars and snatched entire roofs and walls from their frames.
The roughly 150 mile-per-hour winds hopped over Chef Menteur Highway and blew out walls at a NASA assembly plant. By the time the tornado fizzled out over Lake Borgne, it had caused millions of dollars of damage. Together with a cluster of other windstorms, it yielded the seventh presidentially declared major disaster of 2017.
States have come to rely on these declarations, a practice that helps individuals and communities recover from disasters. And since the 1980s, the federal government has been on the hook for the majority of recovery costs when a disaster is declared.
But as the country faces an increasing number of billion-dollar disasters, federal officials are considering scaling back that spending, aiming to save taxpayer money and encourage states to prepare for disasters with their own resources.
And that has some local officials worried. Without the federal relief they depend on, many communities could be hamstrung after a disaster, unable to help their most vulnerable residents.
Some could have to hold back so much money that other programs and services would suffer, said Bryan Koon, Florida’s emergency management director. “They would be miserable places to live and if you have a large enough disaster, they would be destroyed.”
The proposed pullback, along with the threat of more frequent and intense natural disasters linked to climate change, is already forcing cities and states to change the way they prepare for — and recover from — events like tornadoes, forest fires, floods and hurricanes.
But preparing now for a billion-dollar storm that may be decades away can be a hard sell for officials who also have to come up with money for schools, roads and other essentials.
“Some states that have a rainy-day fund, or some other kind of set-aside fund, for them it might be easy,” Koon said. “For most legislatures, [the money] is not going to magically appear.”
States generally qualify for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s public assistance program — money to replace and repair infrastructure — if they sustain damage that crosses a certain dollar threshold, which is now set at $1.43 per state resident.
But critics say that rate is too low and some declarations are issued when the damage is relatively small.
To get help from FEMA, a governor must formally request federal disaster assistance. Presidents do sometimes decline disaster requests, and those decisions have raised questions about whether the process lacks transparency and is too subjective or politically motivated.
If the president does declare a disaster, FEMA will typically reimburse the affected states and localities for at least three-quarters of their recovery costs.
For many state and local governments, saving more money for disaster relief is out of reach without a significant influx of revenue.
Like most cities, Baton Rouge, La. — where thousands of residents found themselves underwater last August after 2 feet of rain doused the area and flooded local rivers — sets aside no extra money to recover from a major disaster. The assistance the city and its residents needed quickly overwhelmed savings and personnel during last year’s flood.
The flooding, along with damage from another storm a few months earlier, was so expansive and destructive — 51 of the state’s 64 parishes received federal disaster declarations — that FEMA is paying 90 percent of the public safety and infrastructure rebuilding costs in Baton Rouge and surrounding localities. The state is picking up the remaining 10 percent.
This year President Donald Trump took aim at disaster funding, proposing a budget that cuts FEMA by 11 percent and targets emergency preparedness grants to state and local governments.
To reduce federal disaster spending, think tanks and government officials have for some time suggested increasing the damage threshold that states need to meet to qualify for federal funds, increasing their share of the costs and creating a disaster deductible that states would have to meet in order to qualify for federal funds — changes that local officials say would shift significant costs to states.
Proponents of the agency’s deductible plan say it would encourage states to save money for future disasters and design more resilient communities.
Some proponents also argue that it’s a question of fairness.
“It would relieve taxpayers in non-disaster states from continually subsidizing taxpayers elsewhere,” Diane Katz, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote in comments to FEMA.
New York, Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi and Texas received the most federal disaster assistance between 1999 and 2015, averaging a $623.2 million-a-year payout. States like Idaho and Wyoming, which are less disaster-prone, only received, on average, $687,985 and $763,162 in relief during that time.
But some cities and states say the deductible is unfair to disaster-prone states and local governments that don’t have the means to invest in resiliency on their own.
Pat Forbes, executive director of the state division of administration in Louisiana, said disasters are unpredictable and could hit any place at any time.
“When the disaster, especially one as catastrophic as [last year’s Baton Rouge floods], happens in your community, you can’t recover without outside help,” Forbes said.