Texans affected by Hurricane Harvey, including my family and me, appreciate the outpouring of support from across the country. President Donald Trump has even pledged to donate one million dollars to relief efforts. These private donations will be much more valuable than the as much as 100 billion dollars the federal government is expected to spend on relief and recovery. Federal disaster assistance hinders effective recovery efforts, while federal insurance subsidies increase the damage caused by natural disasters.
Federal disaster aid has existed since the early years of the republic. In fact, it was a payment to disaster victims that inspired Davy Crockett's "Not Yours to Give" speech. However, the early federal role was largely limited to sending checks. The federal government did not become involved in managing disaster relief and recovery until the 20th century. America did not even have a federal agency dedicated solely to disaster relief until 1979, when President Jimmy Carter created the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) by executive order. Yet, Americans somehow managed to rebuild after natural disasters before 1979. For example, the people of Galveston, Texas successfully rebuilt the city following a major hurricane that destroyed the city in 1900.
FEMA's well-documented inefficiencies are the inevitable result of centralizing control over something as complex as disaster recovery in a federal bureaucracy. When I served in Congress, I regularly voted against federal disaster aid for my district. After the votes, I would hear from angry constituents, many of whom would later tell me that after dealing with FEMA they agreed that Texas would be better off without federal "help."
Following natural disasters, individuals who attempt to return to their own property — much less try to repair the damage — without government permission can be arrested and thrown in jail. Federal, state, and local officials often hinder or even stop voluntary rescue and relief efforts.
FEMA is not the only counterproductive disaster assistance program. The National Flood Insurance Program was created to provide government-backed insurance for properties that could not obtain private insurance on their own. By overruling the market's verdict that these properties should not be insured, federal flood insurance encourages construction in flood-prone areas, thus increasing the damage caused by flooding.