Flood Insurance Vote Underscores Need for National Mitigation Strategy | Commentary

Posted April 21, 2014 at 4:00am

After abandoning the reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program it proposed in 2012, the need for Congress to develop a national mitigation strategy has taken on renewed urgency.

With legislation signed into law earlier this month to delay the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, Congress has undermined its earlier efforts to solve a national crisis and gone back to reinforcing policies that incentivize development in vulnerable areas that leave taxpayers drowning in debt.

This status quo is unacceptable. We need a solution that will prepare the country for disasters before they strike, saving lives, property and taxpayer dollars in the future.

A national mitigation strategy would emphasize safe and proven ways to protect people and property from catastrophic damage, such as home elevation and flood proofing. It would also protect vulnerable habitats and flood-prone areas with natural buffers, like wetlands and marshes. And it would encourage such efforts through incentives that make them financially attractive for every income level.

The good news is that both Democrats and Republicans have proposed several measures that encourage exactly this kind of approach.

One way to promote mitigation is to provide individual financial incentives to those living in vulnerable areas. Rep. Dennis A. Ross, R-Fla., and Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., have a bill to create Disaster Savings Accounts, where homeowners can deposit up to $5,000 for mitigation purposes. The money in these accounts would be tax-deductible, giving homeowners the necessary push to invest in activities that protect them in the long run.

Incentives are also needed at the state and community level. The Safe Building Code Incentive Act, a bill sponsored by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., does exactly that, authorizing the president to offer 4 percent more disaster relief than currently offered to areas that have implemented an approved building code. Currently, building standards vary widely across the country. The legislation is meant to encourage a minimum standard for building safety and, in the process, promote more advance preparation for disasters.

Another bill focuses on coordinating planning efforts between states and communities that regularly experience disasters. A bill proposed by Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., would establish a disaster information clearinghouse and a federal interagency working group, allowing agencies of all levels to share best practices, resulting in better preparation nationwide.

On a larger level, the new Resilience Fund proposed by President Barack Obama in his budget is a comprehensive effort to promote mitigation efforts throughout the country. The billion-dollar plan would fund research, technology and infrastructure to better equip communities for the effects of climate change and encourage the adoption of local mitigation measures.

Both parties need to work together to develop a consensus approach that protects people, property, and tax dollars. According to the Multihazard Mitigation Council, mitigation saves $4 for every dollar spent on post-disaster recovery aid, and mitigation measures have saved more than 200 lives between 1993 and 2003 while preventing almost 4,700 injuries over 50 years.

Catastrophe risks are real, and they are growing. By preparing in advance, lawmakers will keep the human and financial costs in check and do the right thing for both their constituents and their communities.

After all, disasters do not affect Democrats or Republicans; they affect all Americans.

Josh Saks is legislative director for the National Wildlife Federation; Jimi Grande is senior vice president of Federal and Political Affairs for the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies.