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Opinion: As Hurricane Season Approaches, It’s Time to Fix Disaster Funding

Our federal government should stop treating natural disasters as surprises

A school bus crosses a makeshift bridge for vehicles in Morovis, Puerto Rico, in December near where the original bridge was washed away by Hurricane Maria flooding. (Mario Tama/Getty Images file photo)
A school bus crosses a makeshift bridge for vehicles in Morovis, Puerto Rico, in December near where the original bridge was washed away by Hurricane Maria flooding. (Mario Tama/Getty Images file photo)

The official start of the Atlantic hurricane season is just over ten days away. As the nation continues to grapple with the emotional and economic scars of last year’s natural disasters, it is hard to fathom the possibility of a new spate of storms. And while we can’t predict the extent of trauma that awaits us in 2018, one thing is for sure — we are not prepared.

Last year, the United States saw 16 weather-related disasters that each exceeded $1 billion in costs and damages. Total costs of disaster recovery for the year are expected to surpass $300 billion.

While 2017 was hopefully an anomaly, we know for certain that severe storms, floods and fires will continue to inflict additional destruction, misery and high costs. Our federal government, however, continues to treat each of these natural disasters as a surprise, appropriating billions of borrowed dollars in “emergency” relief, as if no one could have possibly anticipated the need.

This practice is wasteful, disingenuous, and leaves our nation vulnerable to the next disaster. As hurricane season approaches, Congress needs to reform our funding, planning, and response policies before the next major disaster strikes.

A principal reason for our complex and inefficient system is that funding for disaster response and recovery is “off-budget.” This means the funds are not counted against discretionary spending limits and therefore not required to be offset by spending reductions in other programs. Aside from adding to the fast-growing deficit, it diminishes the incentive to evaluate the scope of the problem and undertake effective reform.

This ad hoc funding pattern represents trillions of dollars in unfunded liabilities over the next several decades. Appropriations need to be made in accordance with a legitimate estimate of average annual relief costs, with funds rolling forward from year to year to provide adequate funding in extremely costly years.

In addition to devising a more realistic funding plan, we must invest in resiliency to not only keep critical infrastructure operating during a disaster, but directly lower the cost of recovery. For every dollar spent on mitigation by key federal agencies, six dollars are saved in damages during a disaster. By investing in resiliency after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Mississippi withstood the 85 mph winds and 10-foot storm surges of 2017’s Hurricane Nate without significant damage.

Unfortunately, Mississippi’s story is far from the norm, as the failure to fund resilient infrastructure is still playing out in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands with disastrous consequences.

From the Archives: Schumer Calls on Trump to Step Up Puerto Rico Aid

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To fix this, Congress must first re-evaluate the Stafford Act, the 1988 law that guides federal emergency response. In many cases, it imposes limitations on rebuilding infrastructure, often resulting in assets being rebuilt as they were before the disaster.

Second, the perpetually underwater National Flood Insurance Program, still projected to be billions in debt even after the latest bailout, desperately needs reform. The floodplain maps that act as NFIP’s framework are woefully outdated. While NFIP will repeatedly pay for home repairs, residents can often be trapped in a cycle where their homes are losing value and relief does not cover the cost of relocation. Remarkably, a single home in Spring, Texas, with a value of $42,000 has been repaired 19 times through the flood insurance program at a cost of $913,000.

More broadly, from the Jones Act to SNAP benefits, the federal government does not have a uniform process to determine when and how non-disaster programs should react or apply waivers during a disaster.

As our federal policies struggle to keep up, new technologies are coming online every day. Developments in machine learning help us better deploy emergency resources and improve the accuracy of weather monitoring systems. With drones flying overhead and apps on our phones, we have more tools than ever to improve disaster response. A national strategy must encourage and incorporate these advancements.

Fortunately, we have demonstrated the capacity to learn at least some lessons from previous disasters. Congress passed important improvements in disaster response and preparedness in the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013. The latest omnibus package included much-needed funding for both natural disaster detection and relief, along with fixes to our wildfire response policies.

However, so much more remains to be done. Working together, Congress, the administration, states and the private sector can develop safer and far more cost-effective approaches that provide the necessary relief to affected citizens, while making our underlying infrastructure more resilient and our communities better prepared for what’s to come.

Jason Grumet is the founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.

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