FEMA in California

11/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Forget about their inefficiency and indifference after Hurricane Katrina -- FEMA seems to be making new mistakes.

The country's largest agricultural producer, California's Central Valley is a 400 mile long, 18-county inland fruit and vegetable patch that is now suffering more than any other American farming center during the current recession. A collapse in the state's once booming housing market and low demand for standard products like milk and almonds are joined to a severe drought -- now in its third year -- that is driving up joblessness and food prices while crippling farms, towns and local workers.

Across the valley, towns are already seeing some of the worst unemployment in the country, with rates three and four times the national average. There are reports of increases in all manner of social ills: drug use, excessive drinking and rises in hunger and domestic violence. California now has 12.2% unemployment; its highest since 1940 when unemployment soared to 14.7%. But in some parts of the Central Valley, unemployment has already exceeded California's Depression-era record.

With fewer paychecks, local check cashing businesses have failed, and with them have gone thrift stores, ice cream parlors and hardware shops. The state put 2008's drought losses at more than $300 million, but economists predict that this year's losses could swell past $2 billion, with as many as 80,000 jobs lost.

While the region grapples with the drought, federal environmental regulations have reduced water shipments to some local farmers by as much as 90% of their normal allotment. In desperation, many farmers have sidelined much of their acreage, throwing people out of work in many job areas, including field workers, processing handlers, people packing melons, trucking hay, sprayers, and people selling tractors.

At $8 per hour, the typical monthly take-home pay of Central Valley laborers is about $1,200. So unemployment in the Central Valley is putting very vulnerable Americans at risk. In July, unemployment in the Central Valley ranged from 13.9% to 15%, compared with 11.9% for California as a whole (at that time).

15% is Depression-style unemployment, but in the western Fresno County farm community of Mendota -- once known as the capital of cantaloupe production -- the unemployment rate is just under 40%. During a 12 month period that ended on June 30, the Fresno Community Food Bank distributed a record 14.5 million pounds of food to poor and unemployed residents of a three county area: this figure is double the amount distributed during the same period last year, and since June, unemployment in the region has worsened.

In the Westlands Irrigation District, which serves about 700 farmers, more than 260,000 of the 600,000 acres that are typically home to tomatoes, lettuce and other crops have been taken out of production this year. The Westlands Water District, which receives water exclusively from the Central Valley Project and distributes it to 600,000 acres in Fresno and Kings Counties, is one of the hardest hit areas. Harris Farms in Fresno's Coalinga now only farms about 4,500 acres compared with a normal total of about 14,000. Overall, farmers in the valley stand to lose between $1.2 billion and $1.6 billion in revenue in 2009, with 60,000 to 80,000 people thrown out of work.

In June, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed a state of emergency for nine Central Valley counties and asked President Obama to declare Fresno County a federal disaster area. The designation was intended, in part, to help finance food shipments to assist out-of-work residents.

Officials at FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) rejected California's request for a state of emergency saying the state had ample resources to manage the emergency despite the state's budgetary shortfall of several billion dollars and the costly state of emergency California declared to manage its unprecedented summer wildfires. Governor Schwarzenegger last week appealed this denial, and FEMA officials are now reviewing their decision, but the matter is becoming urgent. A month ago, Mr. Schwarzenegger allotted about $4 million for an extra five weeks' worth of food shipments. That money will run out at the end of September.

Californians now wonder if FEMA will respond in a positive and timely way or if the Central Valley will join New Orleans as another victim of a Federal Agency famous for dragging its heels while many Americans of color suffer.

FEMA doesn't seem to know it, but this has been an especially bad summer for California, wildfires and the crippled economy are driving out-migration. Migrants from the Central Valley are now traveling across America and Canada to find work. In my forthcoming book, North American Ark, I describe how the economic and environmental collapse of California will begin a cycle of human migration that will continue across North America for generations.

The beginnings of the crisis are assembling themselves now in California's Central Valley. And just as it did in New Orleans, FEMA is doing what it can to turn a regional crisis into a national disaster.


1. Jim Carlton, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 2, 2009. "Food Aid Grows in California's Agricultural Heart".

2. Tracie Cone, Associated Press. Aug 26, 2009. "Agric. Secretary assesses Calif. water problems."

3. CECILIA PARSONS. Capital Press. Sept 1, 2009. ' Frustrated farmers give Vilsack an earful: Dairy prices top the list for many at USDA's 'Rural Tour' '

4. JESSE McKINLEY. New York Times. Feb. 22, 2009. 'Drought Adds to Hardships in California.'

5. John McChesney. National Public Radio. May 11, 2009. Drought, Politics Trouble Farmers In California

6. William M. Welch, USA TODAY. July 7, 2009. "California Farmers Say Feds Make Drought Worse."