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Reform National Disaster Policy Before the Next Sandy Strikes | Commentary

As we mark the start of Atlantic hurricane season, it is more critical than ever that Congress start developing a national strategy to mitigate the impact of storms.

Today, we consistently respond to the last disaster, rather than planning for the next one. As storms, floods and other disasters grow more potent with the onset of climate change, reactive policy is simply not sustainable.

Experience has shown that lack of preparedness comes at too high a cost. Once-in-a-century hurricanes such as Katrina and Sandy are growing more common, leaving an ever-greater financial and human toll in their wake. It is past time for us to formulate a meaningful plan to respond to these worsening storms, before we are caught unaware yet again.

A national plan would focus squarely on preparation, rather than on post-disaster relief. For too long, disaster aid has been doled out after a storm has rolled through. This ad-hoc, post-facto approach only drives up costs and leaves vulnerable areas open to destruction. Worsening coastal flooding will put even more lives and property at risk. The Multihazard Mitigation Council has found that mitigation, on the other hand, saves $4 for every dollar spent on recovery and relief and has saved more than 200 lives from 1993 to 2003.

Hazard mitigation entails changes at both the individual and community level. It means incentivizing individual preparation with risk-based insurance rates and financial support for storm-proofing, home elevation and other proven methods to protect people and property from damage. It also encourages communities to strengthen building codes and restoration of marshes and wetlands to provide a natural buffer to flood-prone areas from rising waters. Finally, it ensures that climate resilience efforts are connected to the latest science on those communities with high exposure to disaster risks.

Democrats and Republicans alike have proposed multiple measures to promote better planning and disaster mitigation.

Rep. Dennis A. Ross, R-Fla., and Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., have introduced a bill to set up disaster savings accounts, tax-deductible funds in which homeowners can deposit up to $5,000 for mitigation purposes. Giving individuals the means to take disaster planning into their own hands promotes better preparation far before a storm hits.

Another bill proposed by Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Fla., and Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., would establish a federal interagency working group and a disaster information clearinghouse to let authorities better share ways to plan for catastrophes. By letting agencies at all levels combine their collective knowledge, states and communities that regularly experience disasters can coordinate planning efforts nationwide.

Finally, a proposal from Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., and Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J., would strengthen building codes across the country by permitting more disaster relief for communities that have updated their building codes. Modernizing these regulations to reflect more potent storms is vital to letting residents be adequately prepared.

By this point, the risks and costs resulting from natural disasters are well known and have been experienced in every region of the country, from Florida to California. No longer is any corner of our country immune from the costs of catastrophe.

Congress now has a responsibility to start addressing the cost of disasters before we face yet another storm. It’s time to make preparedness a national priority, and that starts with smart policy and resourcing. By adopting measures to keep costs in check, lawmakers will do the right thing for both their constituents and their communities.

David Williams is president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance; Angela Anderson is director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists