FEMA’s hard deadlines hurt those needing help

When will the electricity be back on? Is the water safe to drink? Which streets were damaged so badly they need to be closed to the public? Can school buildings be repaired and reopened quickly? Do any municipal employees need time off to ensure their own families are safe?

That is just a sampling of questions local and state government officials have to answer in the wake of natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, etc. There are hundreds more. Add this to them: Have we jumped through all of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s hoops? Do we have official confirmation a formal request for FEMA aid was received before the agency’s deadline?

Municipalities, counties, states and school districts do not always qualify for federal disaster relief. Often, there are good, understandable reasons for that. But absolute rejections of requests for FEMA help — no matter how bad a disaster was — because a deadline was missed rub many local government officials and taxpayers the wrong way. They should.

During just the past year, more than $100 million in disaster relief requests were turned down because applicants missed FEMA deadlines, The Associated Press has reported. In some cases, the agency did not even consider the merits of requests.

The very severity of some disasters — the full extent of which can take years to learn — argues against a just-say-no policy based on deadlines. So does the fact that in some cases checked by the AP, local government entities waded through all the paperwork on time — but state governments failed to forward the information to Washington before deadlines had passed. A small town devastated by flooding or a school district with buildings destroyed by a tornado should not be penalized because of a bureaucratic error at the state capital.

FEMA officials should take another look at rigid adherance to deadlines. Showing a little understanding would not be a bad thing.