by David Paulison

The Times-Picayune – August 31, 2015


Ten years after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, the communities that bore the brunt of the storm have been taking time to reflect on the aftermath. Just two weeks after the storm made landfall, President George W. Bush tasked me to lead the recovery as acting administrator of FEMA. I witnessed firsthand the destruction that claimed 1,833 lives and caused $108 billion in property damage. That tragic experience, however, offered some important lessons that we now have a chance to act on for the future.

Prior to leading FEMA, I spent 30 years in the fire service, rising to chief of the Miami-Dade Fire and Rescue Department from 1992 to 2001. Throughout my career, I have experienced disasters across the country that have taken lives and destroyed homes. In almost every instance, there was an opportunity to greatly reduce the loss of life and property beforehand.

The most critical lesson is that preparing for the storm is more important than the response that follows. As the nation's first firefighter and founding father Ben Franklin used to say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Preventative reforms will help save lives, dramatically reduce damage and reduce the cost of recovery to taxpayers.  Unfortunately, our nation has yet to adopt many of the important lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina and more recent major disasters like Hurricane Sandy.

The federal government spends exponentially more on post-disaster relief than on mitigation, and when the government does invest in mitigation it almost only does so after a disaster has occurred. According to a newly released Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on Hurricane Sandy, FEMA spent 14 times more on post-disaster mitigation than it did on pre-disaster measures from 2011-14. The heavy focus on spending after, rather than before a disaster results in an endless cycle of rebuild and repair and a federal system that is prone to waste, duplication and misguided investments. Not enough resources are being allocated for pre-disaster mitigation, especially considering the fact that according to the National Institute of Building Sciences, every $1 spent on prevention saves taxpayers $4 in disaster relief. 

Even more shocking is the fact that after Hurricane Sandy, Congress appropriated almost 75 percent of the $50 billion in off-budget emergency disaster spending to federal agencies other than FEMA, with $36 billion going to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Transportation and other non-FEMA agencies. While FEMA has strict cost versus benefit protocols when it spends taxpayer money, other agencies typically do not. The result is money spent on local projects that have little to do with mitigating the damage of the next storm.  

The GAO concluded, and I agree, that the federal government needs a new national mitigation investment strategy to change the way in which we approach disasters. That is why I am working with the BuildStrong Coalition to advocate for a set of reforms that will refocus our efforts on pre-disaster mitigation. The reforms include a new FEMA-administered resilient construction grant program for states to enact and enforce quality building codes and a set of congressional initiatives designed to incentivize states, builders and individuals to construct more resiliently. One congressional proposal, the Safe Building Code Incentive Act, authored by Miami Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, would reward states that break the cycle of destruction by adopting and enforcing statewide building codes with more resources to maintain and update their mitigation efforts.  For states that don't adopt statewide building codes, the time has arrived to examine how much federal cost share such a state should receive.

The investment costs of these mitigation programs and others should be paid for by repurposing $1 billion of the $30 billion in non-FEMA funds that have yet to be awarded as community development block grants from Hurricane Sandy. By redirecting $1 billion of existing appropriations and reinvesting them in the new mitigation incentive programs, Congress can save lives and tens of billions of taxpayer dollars.

Let's mark the 10th anniversary of the nation's worst disaster by adopting lessons learned and reforming the U.S. natural disaster spending policy. It's time to put good policy ahead of politics and focus more federal funding on responsible preventative measures.

R. David Paulison was administrator of FEMA from shortly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to 2009.

Read the op-ed here.