Congress Proposes a National Disaster Safety Board

Members of the Oregon Army National Guard support wildland firefighting efforts at the Two Four Two fire, Chiloquin, OR, in September 2020.

Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Zachary Holden, 115th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.

If the past several months have taught us anything, it’s that the U.S. needs a better strategy to deal with disasters—and this starts with learning from past mistakes. Senators Schatz and Cassidy and Representatives Porter and Graves are introducing bipartisan legislation that would help make this a reality, in the form of a National Disaster Safety Board.

Modeled after the highly successful National Transportation Safety Board, the proposed “NDSB” would address this in a way that is collaborative, forward-looking, and independent. The Board’s purpose would not be to assign blame, but to assess the effectiveness of the nation’s disaster preparedness and response and identify ways we can improve. NDSB recommendations would inform national, state, and local policies to ensure that we learn from our experiences and don’t repeat our errors, and the Board would provide technical assistance for carrying out those recommendations. Importantly, the Board would put special focus on assessing and addressing impacts to people of color, low-income people, and others who face disproportionate risk from disasters (and from the nation’s unequal responses to disasters). 

This type of work is critical. The confluence of COVID-19 with storms, floods, fires, and heat—not to mention the underlying systems that create unequal exposures and compounded impacts—continues to demonstrate why we need a better system for addressing risk and responding to disasters. As I wrote in April (which somehow seems both like yesterday and like a million years ago), the nation must critically assess its disaster preparation, response, and recovery systems with an eye toward the future. We need a way to turn our mistakes into lessons and (this is the essential part) turn those lessons into action.

My all-time favorite title for an academic paper is “A Historical Assessment of Home Buyout Policy: Are We Learning or Just Failing?” (spoiler alert: we’re not learning). While the paper focuses specifically on post-disaster buyout programs, we can see much of the same failure to learn and evolve across a wide range of disaster-related policies. That’s why NRDC is pleased to join former state and federal leaders in emergency management, national security experts, housing advocates, and others in supporting the NDSB proposal. It is long past time for us to apply the lessons of previous disasters so that we can prevent suffering in the future.

About the Authors

Anna Weber

Policy Analyst, Healthy People & Thriving Communities program
Blog Post

When it comes to health and environmental disasters, we are failing to turn mistakes into lessons and lessons into action.

Blog Post

The COVID-19 pandemic’s unprecedented scale of economic, health, and social impacts in the United States has challenged traditional disaster management, requiring unconventional application of federal disaster laws.

Blog Post

The events of 2020, and of the past few years, have exposed the need to bolster the nation’s emergency and disaster management capacity—a fact that is borne out in two recent reports from the GAO.

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