After Disaster-Filled 2017, Congress Invests in Preparedness

Hurricane Harvey flooding by Marcus Yam, Los Angeles Times, Getty Images

Congress has passed a massive, bipartisan budget bill that includes provisions to make the nation safer, stronger, and more secure in the face of worsening catastrophic storms and natural disasters. The proposed budget would fund the pre-disaster mitigation and flood mapping programs at levels well-above past years’ amounts. Given the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria and the wildfires that scorched the Western United States, investment in disaster mitigation and preparedness is financially-sound policy. Hopefully, Congress’s actions are a down payment on a long-term commitment to such investments—not a one-shot influx of cash that diminishes over the next few years until the next major disaster strikes.

Congress’s Past Investments in Disaster Mitigation and Floodplain Mapping

Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program

The FY 2018 budget bill includes $249 million, $149 million more than last year’s amount, for the Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) program. The PDM program provides federal grants for hazard mitigation projects, like voluntary buyouts of flood-prone properties, to reduce risk to people and property, and reduce the costs of post-disaster recovery. Congress’s more than doubling of the program’s funding levels is a smart investment of tax dollars, and, hopefully, reflects a growing awareness that disaster mitigation saves lives and reduces disaster costs.

However, Congress has not always consistently recognized the importance of this program. In FY 2003, the PDM program received $150 million dollars. That number slowly decreased over the ensuing decade. In FY 2014, the program received just $25 million dollars, a paltry amount compared to $6 billion appropriated to help rebuild communities in the aftermath of disaster. As the likelihood of catastrophic storms impacting the United States increases, Congress must ensure that it remains committed to continuing the great investment in disaster mitigation it made in the recent budget bill in future years.

Flood Hazard Mapping and Risk Assessment Program

In the FY 2018 budget bill, Congress also made a significant investment in floodplain mapping. The Flood Hazard Mapping and Risk Assessment Program (RiskMAP) received $263 million, an $85 million-dollar increase from the previous year.

RiskMAP provides communities with flood maps and information, tools to better assess the risk from flooding, and outreach support to communities to help them act to reduce flood risk. Floodplain mapping is a critically important aspect of the program as 22,000 communities nation-wide rely on these maps to guide development decisions. And a recent Inspector General report found that almost 58% of FEMA’s maps are inaccurate and/or out of date, with insufficient funding levels being a major contributor. Thus, Congress’s decision to inject another $85 million into the program will greatly help communities better understand their flood risks.

However, Congress’s funding of this program has also not been consistent.  Over the past 15 years, funding has fluctuated greatly, from a high of $220 million to a low of $85 million. As flooding is one of the most common and costly disasters, and for many regions of the nation is becoming worse due to climate change, Congress must not let its commitment to this vital program wane.

The Benefits of Disaster Mitigation and Preparedness

Extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and severity, causing billions of dollars in disaster-related damages. In 2017, there were 137 federal disaster declarations, and the number has been a rising in the number in recent decades. Between 2004 and 2013, 32% more presidentially declared disasters occurred than during the preceding 10 fiscal years. This contrast is likely to grow as disasters, like extreme storms and flooding, increase in severity and frequency due to climate change. As such, investing in disaster mitigation and preparedness is not only financial responsible it is just commonsense. 

Source: National Institute of Building Sciences

In a recent report, the National Institute of Building Sciences found, on average, six dollars can be saved in disaster recovery for every dollar invested in disaster mitigation. The report analyzed the impacts of 23 years of federal mitigation grants provided by Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Economic Development Administration, and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and found that the benefits of mitigation extend well-beyond simply protecting property, but also help to reduce casualties and free up resources to focus on other aspects of disaster recovery.

Congress must continue to invest more in these programs at higher and higher levels. The benefits to the nation are clear. And Congress appears to have a growing understanding of the importance of disaster mitigation. In February, Congress appropriated $12 billion specifically for disaster mitigation projects in states who have previously received supplemental disaster assistance in recent years. Congress should continue to make such commonsense investments.

About the Authors

Joel Scata

Water and Climate Attorney, Water Initiatives, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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