812 Million Ways Louisiana Could Have Made Itself More Resilient

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A report released last week has revealed that the State of Louisiana has failed to make use of $812 million in disaster mitigation money it was given to make its communities more resilient and better prepared for floods, storms, sea level rise, and hurricanes. Most of the unused funds ($567 million) date back to 2005 and Hurricane Katrina. The remaining $245 million was given to Louisiana following Hurricanes Rita (2005), Gustav (2008), and Ike (2008), as well as smaller flood disasters declared in Louisiana between 2009 and 2011.

The unused funds are FEMA disaster mitigation grants and were the focus of an audit conducted by the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General. These grants are intended to help states reduce their vulnerability to future disasters by elevating or relocating flood prone homes, restoring coastal dunes, and putting in place other protective measures.

Louisiana is one of the most vulnerable states in the nation when it comes to flooding, hurricanes, and sea level rise. FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program has paid out more than $16.6 billion worth of claims to property owners in the state. A recent Pro Publica story highlighted how the combination of sea level rise, subsidence, and the degradation of coastal habitats is causing the state’s spongy coastlines and floodplains to slowly dissolve and become open water. 

Given the well-known challenges the state faces from flooding, you’d think it would be eager to invest every available penny in making itself safer and better prepared for future floods. Evidently not. 

Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Louisiana has received $2.16 billion in disaster mitigation funds from FEMA. According to the Inspector General’s report, the unspent $812 million “represents missed or delayed opportunities to protect lives and property from future disasters.”

How did this happen?

Only three of the state’s 64 parishes had FEMA-approved disaster preparedness plans, also known as hazard mitigation plans, at the time that Katrina struck in 2005. The first year after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita was spent remedying this deficiency in order to make the parishes eligible for grants.

Since then, the state and local governments simply have not been able to get their act together. FEMA has repeatedly granted extensions, too many extensions according to the Inspector General’s report, but the state and local governments have failed to put together project applications and have repeatedly missed deadlines. Under the federal Stafford Act, which defines the nation’s disaster preparedness procedures, states have two years to spend FEMA assistance before it must be returned and made available to other states who are trying to avoid natural disaster damages.

Our country spends amazingly little on preparing for future natural disasters and reducing potential damages from future floods, hurricanes, and other hazards. According to a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences, the amount of federal funding dedicated to strategies for reducing the consequences of flooding (which include both structural and non-structural defenses) was only about 5% of total disaster relief funds between 2004 and 2012. Despite the relatively low investment, disaster mitigation is very cost effective. According to FEMA every $1 spent on mitigation yields $4 in future benefits. 

And if our current state of unpreparedness wasn’t already troubling enough, climate change is increasing the frequency and scale of disasters, especially when it comes to flooding. The nation is going to have to increasingly invest in disaster preparedness and mitigation if we are to keep ahead of the rising curve of damages attributable to climate change. 

In the meantime, states are going to have to do a far better job at utilizing the resources that are available to them. We have to take disaster preparedness and mitigation far more seriously than Louisiana apparently has.