Sept. 14, 2012 -- In a year rife with Southern droughts, Midwest tornadoes and Eastern floods, President Obama declared a record-setting 99 disasters throughout 2011. That's 20 more than he declared in 2010 and more than twice as many as President George W. Bush declared in either of his first two years in the White House.
But according to a Government Accountability Office report released this week, that constant uptick in disaster declarations might have resulted in large part from an antiquated process that dumps most of the responsibility for funding disaster recovery on the federal government instead of the states.
When the president declares a disaster, whether it be for a major hurricane or a flooded river, he commits the federal government to paying for 75 percent of the recovery effort.
According to the report, the president would likely have declared 44 percent fewer disasters -- and saved the federal government millions of dollars -- if the threshold for federal help were raised to keep up with inflation and increases in household incomes.
The bar is set at $1.35 in damages per resident, a threshold that "does not accurately reflect a jurisdiction's capability to respond to or recover from a disaster without federal assistance," the report states.
That federal funding bar has gone up a mere 35 cents in the past 25 years. If it were adjusted for inflation, the federal government would not step in until damages exceeded $2.07 per resident. And if the threshold were adjusted for increases in per-capita income, states would have to foot the bill for disasters with damage costs less than $3.57 per person.
If the federal government ups its requirements for dishing out disaster funds, the burden will fall to state and local governments to foot the bill. Bryan Koon, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said without federal disaster funds, "the recovery process would be much slower and in some cases would be overwhelming" to rural or already cash-strapped communities.
If the bar for declaring disasters were pushed too high, Koons warned, "you could potentially stop or slow that community from ever recovering, in some circumstances, without federal funding."
But with administrative costs at FEMA having doubled in the past 20 years, Koons said, there is an opportunity at every level of government to improve how America deals with natural disasters.
"These are issues worthy of study and discussion because they are large amounts of money and impact a great majority of Americans," Koon said. "I think there's a lot of opportunity there, a lot of ways we could improve our business practices."
The low threshold for declaring disasters is just one piece of why President Obama is breaking records with his disaster declarations.
For one, the weather has been more disastrous during his presidency that is has been in the past 30 years.
In 2011, there were nearly 200 separate events that caused at least $1 billion in damages, more than any year on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It was the year Hurricane Irene brought catastrophic flooding to the Northeast, record-breaking tornadoes ripped through the Midwest, causing more than 500 deaths, and intense drought in the South wrecked crops and led to the driest year on record for Texas.
Price-wise, however, Obama's first three years in office paled in comparison to former President Bush's. From 2009 through 2011, the federal government spent $9.7 billion on natural disaster recovery efforts, according to the GAO report.
During Bush's last three years in office, from 2006 through 2008, the federal government spent nearly twice that amount, doling out about $17 billion for recovery efforts from 190 bad-weather events.