The city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa — one of the worst-hit areas by this summer’s massive floods — is now refusing to make public the flood-damage information detailing the government subsidies homeowners should receive to repair their homes. The assistant city attorney says those records belong to the Federal Emergency Management Agency as apparent rationale for keeping the data from the public, despite the fact that the city itself mailed the homeowners their assessments.
Of course this isn’t the first time flood victims have received government payouts to rebuild damaged properties. After four hurricanes ravaged Florida in 2004 and FEMA began paying $5.3 billion in disaster relief funds, the federal appeals court in Atlanta decried the withholding of addresses of recipients in a 2007 opinion and ordered that FEMA release the information to the public.
When it comes to the public’s — and the press’s — government watchdog role, this is perhaps one of the most important opportunities for oversight. Making sure FEMA is properly distributing taxpayer dollars is a matter of great public interest and should be recognized as such. If Cedar Rapids controls these records to the degree it can distribute them to its residents, it shouldn’t waste a minute in distributing them to the public and the press.