As millions recover from Florence, Congress has a chance to enact disaster reform
By Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) and R. David Paulison
Last fall, the United States was devastated by an unprecedented string of natural disasters: hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. These storms now account for three of our country’s five most expensive hurricanes on record, causing a combined $265 billion in damages. Even worse, the storms tragically took the lives of countless Americans.
With painful memories of these disasters still fresh, the Atlantic hurricane season is once again at its peak in 2018. Hurricane Florence made landfall in the Mid-Atlantic as a record-breaking storm, causing destruction like we have never seen in the region. While the communities affected by Florence will undoubtedly demonstrate American resolve and bounce back, they are serving as unfortunate reminders of the need to overhaul and improve our nation’s disaster readiness. As we help those impacted by Florence continue to recover, it is more important than ever that we work to ensure that they are fully prepared for when the next disaster strikes.
Over the course of our careers in and around emergency management, we have seen the direct impact pre-disaster mitigation can have on protecting local infrastructure, preserving property, and saving lives. Whether dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Katrina in 2005, or the increasingly costly storms from more recent years, the primary lesson from these events is that there is no substitute for pre-disaster mitigation and resilient infrastructure. It could not be clearer: America needs a better system that saves lives and taxpayer dollars by building smarter and stronger before disaster strikes.
These life-saving efforts can also provide massive savings to taxpayers. Expert research has consistently supported this assertion, with one recent study finding that every $1 invested up front in mitigation efforts can save as much as $8 on future costs. With the cost of these storms in the hundreds of billions, the savings pre-disaster mitigation can provide are invaluable.
But despite the devastation caused by previous storms and the ongoing havoc of Florence, the United States continues to drag its feet when it comes to disaster preparedness. Many states still do not incentivize the use of certain safety standards, and the federal government wastes billions on reactive post-disaster spending instead of focusing on proactive investment in disaster preparedness.
Fortunately, there is already a solution on the table that would provide both much-needed relief for Americans and an investment in a stronger future. The Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018 (DRRA), which has passed the House twice and is currently under consideration in the Senate, would go a long way toward accomplishing the goals of investing in pre-disaster mitigation and creating a more resilient America.
Importantly, this bill would increase the amount of money available for pre-disaster mitigation following major disasters. By arming communities with the necessary resources to strengthen their infrastructure against hurricanes and other disasters, those affected across the country will be better equipped for the next inevitable disaster. With the DRRA, Congress has an opportunity to enact real disaster reform.
Encouragingly, there have been recent signs that our national approach to disaster response, recovery, and mitigation is trending in the right direction. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives included a cost share incentive provision designed to greatly enhance state resiliency in the Bipartisan Budget Reform Act that was signed into law by President Trump. FEMA, in addition to its extraordinary work done regularly in responding to disasters, is taking steps to ensure that this law is implemented effectively and efficiently. The Trump administration has provided strength in its response to those suffering from recent disasters, with Vice President Pence telling a community wracked by Hurricane Harvey that they would work to “[rebuild] all of Texas bigger and better than ever before.” However, these actions are only the beginning of the required wholesale shift in our national disaster framework. It is up to Congress to continue this momentum and enact meaningful reforms that will save lives, property and taxpayer dollars.
Including the record-breaking 2017 season, disaster spending continues to be an ever-expanding cost category for the United States. With another tumultuous hurricane season underway, it is time for lawmakers to act. Safer, stronger communities mean a safer, stronger country. If members of Congress are serious about serving their constituents, then senators must finish the important work the House started and pass the Disaster Recovery Reform Act now.
Since 2013, Barletta has served as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s subcommittee overseeing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), examining ways to better prepare for disasters and working to develop a new federal and state partnership to limit the cost of their devastation. R. David Paulison was the FEMA administrator from 2005 to 2009. He is a senior advisor to the BuildStrong Coalition and served as the Miami-Dade County Fire Chief during Hurricane Andrew.