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Saks and Ellis: Sandy a Reminder of Need for National Mitigation Strategy

Communities across the country are recovering after the wrath of Hurricane Sandy and, once again, tens of millions of taxpayer dollars will be spent to rebuild. The storm should serve as a warning that a national mitigation strategy is needed to save taxpayer dollars and human life.

In the aftermath of Sandy, immediate assistance from FEMA and the federal government is needed to protect lives and rebuild public infrastructure. Because most communities are not prepared for nature’s wrath, however, the fiscal burden will be more expensive than necessary.

A modern disaster mitigation strategy would greatly reduce the burden on U.S. taxpayers in the future. Hurricanes and floods will strike again, so it makes sense for Congress to pursue a 21st century approach that prepares for disasters before they occur.

While post-disaster recovery measures are important and must be better managed, the best way to help people is to protect their lives and property before disaster strikes. Spending on disaster mitigation is a cost-effective way to limit the damage caused by hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural events. When communities and homes are stronger, when we preserve natural features such as wetlands and natural floodplains and when we think holistically about land use and where to develop there is less damage, disaster assistance, clean-up, displacement and rebuilding after a storm. And hence, there is less spending overall.

Mitigation measures saved more than 200 lives between 1993 and 2003 and prevented 4,700 injuries over 50 years, according to a study done by the National Institute of Building Sciences Multihazard Mitigation Council.

These measures also helped communities and individual property owners relocate outside of the floodplain when possible. A national mitigation policy focused on strengthening homes, protecting them against severe weather and using nature when possible as a buffer is not only integral to saving lives and reducing damage, it will be cost effective.

For every dollar spent on risk-reducing measures, four are saved in clean up and rebuilding costs, in addition to lowering the costs of government and privately provided insurance. Pre-disaster, preventive measures should be improved and included in any government disaster planning.

Public policies should encourage and provide incentives for making housing, including affordable housing, better able to withstand nature’s wrath. A national strategy should help people living in disaster-prone areas take pre-emptive steps to protect their property, and not encourage further development in high-risk, environmentally sensitive areas.

In some cases, that strategy should even help relocate properties to ensure that floodplains perform their natural protective functions.

The highest priority of natural disaster public policy should be reducing the risk of loss of life, but protecting property can also promote sound fiscal policy.

Federal dollars that are spent on mitigation should be spent on those families and communities that cannot otherwise afford to protect themselves. This will help people better prepare for what nature has in store and will save taxpayer assistance after disaster strikes.

Coordination across federal agencies is also needed so standards are consistent. Housing and Urban Development Department, FEMA, the Energy Department and others should work together so any activities regarding residential housing and buildings are done in a smart and safe way.

When Mother Nature’s wrath strikes, government has a responsibility for infrastructure, disaster assistance and recovery. Taxpayers can pick up urgent needs after disasters, but the government’s balance sheet does not need to grow because of a lack of preparation for events we all know will occur.

It is less expensive to be prepared for disasters such as Sandy before they hit than it is to rebuild after them. It is time for Congress to pursue a national disaster mitigation strategy so we can promote safety and reduce the costly rebuilding that can often be prevented with proper preparation and planning.

Josh Saks is legislative director of the National Wildlife Federation. Steve Ellis is vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

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