Federal Disaster Spending: Let’s Stem The Tide By Focusing On Mitigation

R. David Paulison Former FEMA Administrator
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The federal government’s role in disaster spending has rapidly expanded. While in the past, state and local governments were responsible for funding most disaster management and emergency response efforts, today, knowing it will only lead to additional dollars, they are requesting federal help whenever they can. This growing dependency on federal taxpayers to foot the bill in the wake of a disaster should sound the alarm in signaling the need for a wholesale shift in the federal government’s approach to disasters.

This growing federal involvement in disasters stems from of a combination of factors. For starters, legislative changes made in the early 1980s now permit the federal government to pay up to 75 percent of total damages from presidential and major disaster declarations. Additionally, dozens of new programs across a web of federal departments were created following recent catastrophes like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. These programs were largely established as part of a knee-jerk response that lacked foresight, and they were never designed to work together.

These problems were brought to light following Hurricane Sandy, when Congress appropriated $50 billion across nineteen different agencies and more than sixty federal programs. Approximately $36 billion was allocated to agencies other than FEMA, with the majority going to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation. Today — three years after Sandy — these departments are still sitting on almost $30 billion in unspent funding and perhaps even more concerning, are now trying to figure out where to spend it.  

At the same time, current federal policy does little to encourage state and local investment in preventing damages before disasters occur. Experts agree that spending one dollar on prevention ultimately saves four dollars in future costs. However, the federal government almost always waits until after a disaster strikes before it spends that dollar in what it terms “post-disaster mitigation.” The very concept of “post-disaster mitigation” is an oxymoron. Mitigation, by definition, is an action taken to reduce the severity of an event before it occurs. Would a doctor wait for a patient to get sick before administering a vaccine? Of course not, because the purpose of a vaccine is to prevent the illness in the first place. Why, then, is the federal government waiting until after a disaster strikes to invest in mitigation?

Even worse, present federal policies pay little attention to individual homeowners. Currently, the majority of resiliency programs are aimed at fortifying government buildings and infrastructure, and while roads, bridges, levees, dams, and power grids are important, infrastructure needs represent only part of the picture. Single- and multi-family homes are a major driver of disaster losses in the U.S., but only 11 states currently have model statewide model building codes in place to ensure those homes are safe. We need to empower state governments to take responsibility for preparing their communities for natural disasters instead of encumbering them with a bureaucratic system that breeds federal dependency. It is time to take a step back and develop a smarter approach to the problem.

An honest assessment of the federal disaster preparedness system reveals deep and systemic issues that can only be resolved through major reform. I have been working with the BuildStrong Coalition, a group of emergency managers, firefighters, architects, insurance companies, contractors, and code officials, to develop a National Mitigation Investment Strategy. Early last week, the Coalition released a report that outlines this new approach.

This new Investment Strategy addresses the federal government’s overemphasis on post-disaster spending by proposing that $500 million in unspent disaster funding from Hurricane Sandy be reinvested in a true Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program. Also recommended are a package of incentives that encourage states to adopt and enforce strong statewide building codes, and that would provide tax credits for builders and homeowners who utilize cutting-edge fortification techniques when constructing new homes. Additionally, the report calls for the establishment of a new FEMA pilot program that would provide grants to states and localities in order to help defray their enforcement costs for qualified building codes. Taken as a whole, these reforms will empower state and local governments to make their own decisions on how best to protect their residents in the place they should feel safest — their home — and will save taxpayer dollars in the process.

The investment costs of these programs can be paid for by repurposing less than five percent of the $30.06 billion still sitting dormant at DOT and HUD. Doing so will use these funds as Congress originally intended: to power important programs that will reduce damage, save lives, and strengthen our communities.

David Paulison was administrator of FEMA from 2005 to 2009 and Chief of the Miami-Dade Fire and Rescue Department from 1992 to 2001.