On October 8th, Congress passed the Disaster Recovery Reform Act* (DRRA), which makes several smart changes to the Stafford Act—the law that governs how the nation prepares for and responds to natural disasters. These changes will begin to remedy two big problems with our current approach to disaster response. Unfortunately, the DRRA also made one very ill-advised change, which we may come to regret, making it much easier for states to divert FEMA disaster mitigation funding towards costly Corps of Engineers projects like levees, seawalls, and engineered fortifications against flooding.
Our Current Approach to Disaster Response Has Two Big Problems
One problem is our emphasis on rebuilding in the same vulnerable location after every flood, hurricane, or wildfire. In a recent front page investigative story, the New York Times found “that decisions to rebuild in place, often made seemingly in defiance of climate change, have at times left structures just as defenseless against the next storm.” We spend a whole lot of money rebuilding in the same vulnerable place and in the same vulnerable way, with little consideration for how we might redesign or even relocate people’s homes and communities’ critical infrastructure so they can weather an increasingly uncertain future.
Our second major problem is that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) does not have the capacity to do a critical part of its mission: helping states and communities anticipate and prepare for the disasters of the future. This short-sightedness is particularly troubling in light of the International Panel on Climate Change’s recent findings that we are dangerously off the mark in addressing the causes of climate change. The results of that inaction: rising sea levels, increasing potential for major storms, droughts and wildfires, and a dire picture for our planet’s future.
Both need to be addressed because climate change-fueled disasters are becoming more common and far more costly. Cumulative damages in 2017 from weather- and climate-related disasters in the United States totaled $306 billion, the most expensive disaster year in U.S. history and, not coincidentally, the third-warmest year on record. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated that between 2005 and 2014, the federal government obligated $277 billion for disaster assistance programs. In 2017 alone, Congress appropriated $120 billion in supplemental funding and more came from FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund to address three major hurricanes that struck the Gulf Coast, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands as well as wildfires in the Western U.S.
The DRRA will help us address several aspects of those problems…
By passing the DRRA, Congress took what will hopefully be the first of many needed steps to make our nation better prepared and better equipped to deal with the impacts of climate change and the growing frequency and magnitude of natural disasters. Below is a summary of the reforms that the legislation has put in place.
More funding for disaster mitigation projects.
FEMA’s mission includes helping communities address vulnerabilities before a disaster exposes them, but only a tiny part of the agency’s budget goes to that purpose. Under the DRRA, an amount equal to six percent of the post-disaster assistance FEMA provides each year will be deposited in the agency’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation fund. This will be a vast improvement, as FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation program has always been subject to the annual whims of Congressional appropriators, resulting in unpredictable and inadequate funding in most years. Now, FEMA will have a dedicated source of funding it can provide communities each year. However, the benefits of this new funding could be offset by the provision that allows similar funds to be diverted to Corps of Engineers flood control projects (see below).
Enforcement of local building codes.
Local communities will be allowed to use federal disaster aid to hire more building inspectors to ensure repairs are done in compliance with the most up-to-date building codes. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, everyone’s first instinct is to rebuild. But often the homes and buildings that were damaged were decades old, and not in compliance with more modern building codes. Without adequate inspections and enforcement, those structures may never be updated, leaving them just as vulnerable to the next disaster.
Building back more resiliently.
Communities will also be able to build back to even higher standards and design specifications. For example, if the community has not adopted the latest International Building Code, or it wants to rebuild its water treatment plan to the latest resilience design specifications, FEMA funds can now be used for that purpose. This has been a major problem in the past, because the Stafford Act only allowed FEMA to rebuild to existing local codes or to the pre-disaster condition.
Support for substantial damage inspections.
Communities will now be able to use disaster aid to pay for proper damage assessments to homes, buildings, and public infrastructure. Communities often fail to properly assess whether these are “substantially damaged” (i.e., that they sustained damage exceeding 50% of the structure’s value). Legally, any structure that exceeds this threshold has to be relocated or rebuilt to better withstand future flooding. Unfortunately, as this Houston Chronicle investigative story found, “community officials nationwide have flouted the ‘50 percent rule.’”
Updated guidance on evacuation routes.
The Federal Highway Administration is required to revise its guidance on the “construction, maintenance, and repair of evacuation routes.” Evacuation routes are often determined without any consideration for whether the roads, bridges, etc. along the route have been damaged by disasters in the past. And an evacuation route can turn into a dead end, right when it’s most needed. The guidance will also cover plans for how to help a community’s most vulnerable residents find their way to safety, including where they can shelter and how they can return home when it is safe to do so.
… But it will also allow diversion of FEMA money to costly flood control projects.
However, the DRRA would also allow disaster funds to be diverted from FEMA to support Army Corps of Engineers projects like levees, seawalls, and other flood fortifications. This will take money that would have been used for much-needed, underfunded efforts to buy out flood-prone homes, build green infrastructure, install backup power supplies, or develop disaster mitigation plans. I’ve called this provision “Robbing Peter to Pay for Paul’s Massively Expensive Seawall.”
Levees, seawalls, and flood fortficationstend to be very expensive, one-dimensional solutions that create a permanent financial obligation to properly operate and maintain. Once a levee or sea wall is built, people have a false sense of security, assuming that they are now “safe” from all future disasters. FEMA disaster mitigation dollars typically go towards projects that cost far less, benefit more people, and result in longer lasting, more cost-effective ways to enhance community resilience. This is an issue that NRDC and many others have opposed for nearly a year (see Hurricane Aid Package Includes Poison Pills and Congress Is Messing with Disaster Programs (AGAIN!)).
Corps funding already dwarfs FEMA’s mitigation programs. And Corps projects are generally less cost effective that FEMA’s mitigation projects. The final version of DRRA includes some safeguards that may curtail the worst abuses, but we may be back again to reform the Stafford Act if FEMA and the Trump administration convert FEMA’s disaster mitigation programs into back-door way of funding expensive and ineffective Corps projects that even Congress wouldn’t fund through the normal appropriations process.
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The nation needs to break the habit of simply responding to natural disasters by throwing massive amounts of money and effort at them after-the-fact. And the nation needs a Federal Emergency Management Agency that can better support communities' efforts to avoid becoming the next disaster.
FEMA-backed home buyouts can take years to complete, leaving homeowners caught in limbo worrying whether another flood will strike and waiting to learn if and when they’ll be able to move. The Promoting Flood Risk Mitigation Act (H.R. 5846) seeks to determine why flood-prone homeowners must wait years for relocation assistance.
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. 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.