President Trump has vowed to rebuild America’s aging highways, bridges, airports and other key areas. But these investments will be for naught if stronger storm resiliency standards are not included in this ambitious infrastructure plan.
Devastating natural disasters tore through the country at a record rate in 2016, causing billions of dollars in damage and killing at least 200 people. Despite the increasing threat of severe weather, federal disaster policies have failed to keep up, doing little to protect lives, infrastructure and taxpayer money.
As a businessman and builder himself, President Trump knows the importance of smart investments, so he should work with Congress to immediately implement a national mitigation strategy that ensures new infrastructure can better withstand severe storms. If Congress is unable to act swiftly, the President should mandate this initiative through executive order before breaking ground.
A comprehensive plan would require all federal infrastructure — as well as state and local projects paid for with federal funds — to be built more resistant to storm exposure. State and local governments should also carry insurance for these projects instead of simply relying on taxpayer funds for rebuilding after major storms strike.
Beyond any new infrastructure package, there are ways to strengthen federal disaster policies by shifting assistance from post-disaster cleanup and rebuilding toward strategies that can minimize damage before storms strike. This effort would include a multi-pronged approach that reforms disaster assistance rules to incentivize or require better planning and preparedness, while funding cost-effective mitigation tools, including buyouts, elevations and better use of natural features.
In addition to disaster assistance reform, Congress can ensure better resiliency by reforming the broken National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which is up for reauthorization in September 2017. The program, which supports mitigation efforts and provides flood coverage to more than 5.2 million policyholders nationwide, is $23 billion in debt and growing. Structural changes to the NFIP are essential for making it financially secure and available to help Americans rebuild after future disasters.
Recognizing this growing need, Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Missouri) recently released a series of proposed reforms to the program, which includes getting private flood insurers back in business and reducing the size of the costly NFIP. This would decrease the program’s overall risk, reduce taxpayer exposure, enable the program to better serve policyholders and ensure that NFIP will be available to future generations.
Congress can begin this effort by considering the Flood Insurance Market Parity and Modernization Act, which would level the playing field for private flood insurers and lessen dependence on the program. The availability of private insurance would give consumers more options while offering better rates and coverage. The bill would also introduce smarter methods of calculating risks, reduce administration costs and allow for innovative ways to plan and pay for mitigation activities.
Another crucial reform is to ensure that FEMA uses the most accurate data and risk analysis tools when drawing flood maps and setting premiums. Currently, FEMA maps do not assess individual property risk. By working with the private sector, FEMA will relieve property owners from having to shoulder the burden of determining risks while helping private insurers offer rates that accurately reflect the flood danger a property faces.
Considering infrastructure investment costs versus public benefits, stronger resiliency standards more than pay for themselves. As FEMA has noted, every dollar spend on mitigation saves four dollars later. That makes good business sense and great public policy.
Disaster policy reform is a bipartisan issue that President Trump and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle should quickly pursue before moving forward on a major infrastructure initiative. This will protect infrastructure long into the future, while saving lives, homes and taxpayer dollars from future natural catastrophes.
Steve Pociask is president of the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit educational and research organization. For more information, visit www.theamericanconsumer.org or follow us on Twitter @ConsumerPal.