Speaking to reporters during President Biden’s trip to Lahaina, Hawaii, Homeland Security Advisor Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall shared that the Biden administration set a record of 63 minutes with its approval of the state’s request for an expedited major disaster declaration.
Sherwood-Randall laid out the plans from the beginning of the mission to the ultimate goal of helping rebuild the way the residents want to rebuild (a lesson taken, it would seem, from Katrina) in a way that addresses environmental safety and is respectful of the land. She also referenced, as part of the process, Governor Josh Green’s remarks about how quickly the White House responded and got into that process, which involves an overnight watch plan when a disaster declaration is expected, “in which people stay up through the night in the various components of the White House.”
She explained that they learned to ask FEMA to help the Governor’s office make the request so it doesn’t lose time to red tape, “The first thing we’ve learned to do in this administration is actually to ask FEMA to work with the Governor’s team to shape the request in a way that we can respond to it quickly so we don’t lose any time and bureaucracy. Because in some cases, what happens the state will make a proposal to FEMA, that doesn’t actually work. And then that takes time to get fixed. So what we did today, Bob Benton it was you on the ground working with the Governor and his team to make a request we can answer expeditiously. It came through FEMA that comes over to the White House that has to go through me and the Office of Management Budget, the lawyers get signed off on by the President. And that happened once it got over to the White House. It was I believe 63 minutes, which is a record.”
To put this into context, President Obama acted quickly and had a disaster declaration signed for Hurricane Sandy within a day of the request. When Lousisana requested a disaster declaration after Hurricane Katrina, President Bush didn’t declare a full disaster, had to issue a second declaration, and aid did not start arriving in New Orleans until days later.
The Bush administration’s response to Katrina was so bungled that it led to a congressional investigation and a legislative response that reorganized FEMA.
The Bush response is widely regarded as incompetent. The Obama response drew praise from Republicans and Democrats, but Biden has taken federal responsiveness to another level.
This tracks with the whispers that President Biden really hates bureaucracy and is impatient when he thinks people aren’t getting what they need or things could be moved along more quickly. It’s also a benefit of having a President who has worked in the government for decades, and even as Vice President in a previous competent administration.
We discussed this topic in depth on Monday’s Politicus Pod, getting into the history of FEMA responses from Katrina to Trump’s looting of FEMA to Biden’s sharp competency..”
So while there is no normal amount of time, it is astonishing when we think about all that goes into an expedited major disaster declaration that it was approved in 63 minutes.
Presidents can’t unilaterally declare disasters. The disaster declaration must be requested by state governors and there is a legal process that must be followed as aid requests are assembled. Given the policy dynamics, it is almost superhero-like for an administration to get a disaster declaration signed and enacted within an hour.
President Biden is showing the American people what the federal government can do with a competent hand on the wheel and a desire to help others.