House Passes Historic National Disaster Safety Board

Photo of a person in a safety vest, hard hat, and respirator holding a stop sign in front of a road almost hidden by wildfire smoke.

A Pacific Power flagger manages traffic east of Salem, Oregon, during the wildfires of September 2020.

Credit: Oregon Department of Transportation, shared under CC BY 2.0

In a groundbreaking step toward improving disaster preparation, response, and recovery, the U.S. House has passed legislation to create a National Disaster Safety Board (NDSB). Originally co-sponsored by Representatives Katie Porter (D-CA), Nancy Mace (R-SC), and John Garamendi (D-CA), the bipartisan National Disaster Safety Board Act would accelerate efforts to better address disasters in a climate-changed world. The measure was part of a larger wildfire and drought resilience bill passed by the House on July 29th.

The proposed NDSB would be charged with investigating the contributing factors of major disasters, working collaboratively with state and local agencies to assess what went right, what went wrong, and what we can do in the future to save lives and protect communities. This is clearly needed: in the first half of 2022, our country has suffered nine “billion-dollar disasters”—events that have each caused $1 billion or more in damages. And that list doesn’t include the hundreds of other events that may have lower price tags but still leave behind loss, trauma, and devastation. Yet we’re barely into hurricane season, with the most active months for tropical storms just ahead.

The increasing pace and severity of climate-fueled disasters illustrates the need for a NDSB. Modeled after the successful National Transportation Safety Board, the NDSB would develop evidence-based recommendations to inform national, state, and local policies. The Board’s Office for the Protection of Disproportionately Impacted Communities would have a special focus on the needs of those who are more vulnerable to the harms of disasters due to poverty, structural racism, and other underlying social factors.

Last December, I had the pleasure of joining disaster historian Scott Gabriel Knowles on a live Cimpatico.TV episode to discuss the National Disaster Safety Board. Talking with Dr. Knowles is always illuminating, but during this conversation he said something that I’ll remember for a long time.

“Learning from the past to build a safer future is important—I’m a historian, I believe in that—but the act of disaster investigation itself is an important signal to victims and victims’ families and vulnerable communities that the government actually cares,” he said. “In other words, studying disasters is also a way to heal.”

Each disaster is different, but they all take a toll and leave communities struggling to navigate complex, insufficient, and unequal recovery programs. Each event also leaves us with lessons learned and, as a nation, we owe it to disaster survivors to apply those lessons as effectively as we can to prevent suffering in the future.

It’s time that the nation invests in a system designed to stop disasters before they happen, and to better heal from them when they do. With the House voting to establish a National Disaster Safety Board, we are taking an important step to make that happen.

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