By R. David Paulison
January 14, 2015, 08:00 am
The new Congress has a golden opportunity to advance a national disaster strategy that will better protect the American people and save taxpayer dollars.
With the Senate and the House of Representatives working together, this is the time to address the failed status quo of waiting for storms to hit and then passing massive supplemental appropriations bills.
Director Craig Fugate has done a tremendous job fostering resiliency and a community-oriented approach to emergency management since he took the reins of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 2009. However, I’m sure even Director Fugate would admit that there is still much work to be done to build a more resilient country.
According to FEMA, federal disaster declarations have jumped from a yearly average of 28 under President Reagan to 139 under President Obama. The trend is undeniable and costly for taxpayers.
Office of Management and Budget statistics reveal that the average funding provided for disaster relief from 2001-2011 was $11.5 billion a year. In 2012, the average jumped to almost $13 billion. Since 2011, $137 billion has been spent – with over $60 billion spent on Super Storm Sandy.
The vast majority of damage is related to recent hurricanes that pounded the eastern seaboard. Hurricanes Sandy and Irene inflicted a devastating toll on numerous states, costing lives, destroying homes and ruining small businesses.
Pre-storm mitigation efforts such as promoting model-building codes can greatly lessen the damage of hurricanes, but there are only eleven states nationwide that have adequate building codes and enforcement mechanisms in place. Many of the states without proper building codes are directly in harm's way when it comes to hurricanes and other natural disasters. Without greater adoption of strong building codes, the amount of federal spending committed to disaster cleanup and relief will continue to spiral upward.
Preparedness and pre-storm mitigation can save lives and taxpayer dollars. According to a study conducted by FEMA, for every dollar invested in pre-storm mitigation, the nation reaps four dollars of economic benefits. Furthermore, in a landmark study conducted by the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, researchers found that strong building codes, had they been in widespread use throughout the Gulf Region, would have reduced wind damage from Katrina by 80 percent, saving eight billion dollars.
I know first-hand from my time as director of FEMA that the intentions of those on the front lines after a disaster are good. But I also believe that we need to step back and take a hard look at our underlying policies. While many independent groups and the General Accountability Office have examined the different causes behind the rise in disaster relief spending, there has never been a comprehensive congressionally mandated study to analyze what the precise costs are, how much federal spending has been wasted on efforts that aren’t vital or appropriate responses to natural disasters, and how best to control disaster relief expenditures going forward.
The new Congress should pass legislation in short order to commission a Blue Ribbon Panel to explore why disaster declarations are at an all-time high, and what is really behind the dramatic increase in disaster spending. Are the increases in spending related to population increases, changes in spending, poor construction of our homes or mistakes in federal policy? Where have federal dollars dedicated to disaster relief gone? Do sufficient accountability measures exist for FEMA programs, as well as for related programs administered by the Departments of Housing and Transportation, to ensure tax dollars aren’t being wasted?
Additionally, the panel could explore what changes in policy can be made to enhance building resiliency, strengthen building codes, and reduce disaster costs. The panel could also make recommendations concerning the proper role of federal, state, and local governments in solving this problem. Specific attention should be given to the roles of FEMA, HUD and DOT to minimize duplication of effort and waste. Community Development Block Grants are sometimes prone to abuse. These grants should be closely examined by policymakers before more resources are thrown at the problem. Finally, policymakers should assess the current status of the nation’s housing stock, and consider what federal, state and local incentives should be utilized to encourage the implementation of model building codes.
There are several lawmakers in Congress who have dedicated themselves to addressing this serious national problem. Many have properly focused on incentivizing states, communities, builders and individuals to construct more resilient homes and buildings. The BuildStrong Coalition has endorsed many of these efforts, including the Safe Building Code Incentive Act, which would provide states with additional disaster relief in exchange for adopting strong building codes. Other bills supported by the coalition would provide tax credits and other incentives for homeowners to retrofit their homes with strong building codes and take other mitigation actions.
Congress should authorize the above-mentioned Blue Ribbon Commission and use the findings to put in place a comprehensive national disaster strategy that aims to save lives and ultimately reduce taxpayer exposure to natural disasters.
Paulison was director of FEMA from 2005 to 2009.