Building a 21st Century Infrastructure for America: Mitigating Damage and Recovering Quickly from Disasters
2167 Rayburn House Office Building
This is a hearing of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management.
Summary of Subject Matter
Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management
Hearing on “Building a 21st Century Infrastructure for America: Mitigating Damage and Recovering Quickly from Disasters”
April 27, 2017
(Remarks as Prepared)
The purpose of today’s hearing is to discuss how the country can protect its infrastructure from disaster damage, control disaster spending, and ensure the Federal Emergency Management Agency is able to respond when the nation needs it most.
These are difficult challenges, and I am excited our witnesses have brought some bold ideas to the table for tackling these problems. Addressing the rising costs of disasters – both in terms property and human life – is my top emergency management priority.
It comes as no surprise that disaster costs have grown considerably over the past three decades. What may be surprising is that this increase is caused by a small number of really big disasters.
The Congressional Research Service reviewed disaster declarations and spending since 1989 and found the vast majority of federal disasters are small and have little impact on total spending. In fact, one quarter of declared disasters – that means the big ones – account for 93 percent of all costs. In other words, we could eliminate three quarters of all federally-declared disasters and barely cut seven percent from federal disaster spending.
These facts are in direct contradiction to the common wisdom that disaster spending is growing because the number of federally declared disasters is growing. That simply is not true.
In addition, I would argue the amount saved by eliminating those “smaller” disaster declarations would not outweigh the benefit they provide in helping our smaller, remote communities respond to and recover from disasters.
So what can be done to bend the cost curve on big disasters, which is where over 90 percent of the money goes? This is the big challenge, and our witnesses have brought some bold ideas to the table for Congress to consider.
Administrator Fugate, while he was at the helm at FEMA, promoted the idea of a “disaster deductible” to ensure states have skin in the game before they are eligible to receive disaster assistance.
The BuildStrong Coalition has proposed an array of ideas, including federal cost share adjustments, to encourage states to take steps to strengthen infrastructure and reduce disaster damages over time.
Consolidating disaster recovery programs administered by 19 different federal agencies under FEMA is also recommended.
Congress needs to give these and other proposals serious consideration.
Right after I became a Member of Congress in 2011, my own district was hit hard by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Strom Lee. As we were rebuilding, I was amazed that much of the federal assistance was used to rebuild in the same place in the same way, leaving people vulnerable to the next storm. The federal government has a responsibility to respond after a disaster, but we also have a duty to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars and ensure what is rebuilt can withstand the next disaster.
Finally, as we sit here one month away from the start of the Atlantic Hurricane Season, FEMA is still without a nominee for FEMA Administrator.
This is a critical and important time for FEMA, and unfortunately, it is vulnerable.
As Administrator Fugate observes in his written statement, as recently as 2016, FEMA’s authorities were under assault. We must remain vigilant to ensure FEMA has the necessary protections and authorities so that it is ready and able to respond when the country needs it most.
I look forward to your testimony and your ideas for how the country can protect itself from the growing costs of large disasters.