Hurricane Aid Package Includes Poison Pills

The House's $81 billion hurricane disaster aid package includes some poison pills that would harm disaster mitigation programs and endangered species.

Photo courtesy of NOAA, www.nnvl.noaa.gov

The U.S. Senate must act on a supplemental disaster aid package for areas affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria and the wildfires in the Western U.S. The House of Representatives passed an $81 billion disaster aid package in December, but that bill contains “poison pills” that NRDC and other organizations are not willing to swallow. We hope the Senate will do what’s right and do away with these provisions and focus on providing much needed disaster aid.

Poison Pill #1: Robbing Peter to Pay for Paul’s Massively Expensive Sea Wall

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a Hazard Mitigation Grants Program that provides money to help owners of flood-prone properties move to safer ground, raise homes that are in low-lying areas, and better design and prepare public infrastructure to weather future storms and avoid damage. But Section 2009 of the House disaster aid legislation would create a secret backdoor through which the Army Corps of Engineers could divert these funds from FEMA and use it for short-sighted (and expensive!) flood control projects such as building levees and sea walls, channelizing streams, and rebuilding beaches that are likely to wash away.

This is a monumentally bad idea. FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grants comprise only about 20% of what the Army Corps spends on levees, sea walls, and other types of flood control projects. Financially, it makes no sense to divert any of FEMA’s already scarce resources to the Army Corps’ relatively large capital budget (unless, of course, there happens to be a project that can’t get funding through the normal appropriations process and needs a backdoor to circumvent Congress and get FEMA to pay for it).

Additionally, the Army Corps’ flood control projects are generally less cost-effective than projects funded through FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grants. A study by The Economist Magazine found that for every $1 spent, hazard mitigation projects save $5 in avoided flood damages and losses. It’s exceedingly rare to find a project built by the Army Corps that can demonstrate so many benefits for such a small investment. 

Poison Pill #2: Exempting the National Flood Insurance Program from the Endangered Species Act

The second poison pill is a provision that would exempt the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) from compliance with the Endangered Species Act, which could have significant ramifications for salmon in the Pacific Northwest and other species around the country threatened by floodplain development.

Under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies are required to consult with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service when there is a concern about whether an agency’s actions might adversely impact listed species. Tucked into Section 2029 of this supplemental disaster aid package is language that would exempt the National Flood Insurance Program from complying with the Endangered Species Act.

This is consistent with a larger effort by FEMA to assert that the National Flood Insurance Program has no effect on land use -- an assertion that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. How can a program that is intended to map areas susceptible to flooding, establish building and zoning standards in those areas, and then sell insurance that enables people to purchase and build properties in those same areas not have an affect land use decisions? Heck, FEMA’s own statutes repeatedly have the phrase “land use” in them. But FEMA has tried to run away from the facts and their legal responsibilities. In its recent Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, FEMA spent considerable effort contorting itself into a position where they deny having any role in or impact on land use decision-making (see NRDC Attorney Joel Scata’s blogs here and here). 

Now, at least in regard to endangered species protections, Congress may reinforce FEMA’s efforts to try and explain away how it affects land use decisions around the country.   

The fact of the matter is that FEMA does influence land use, and that triggers a legal obligation to consult with federal agencies about the impacts of floodplain development on protected species and their habitats. Federal courts have agreed with this, ruling in at least three instances that FEMA had a responsibility to do just that, including cases in Washington and Oregon that found that FEMA’s implementation of the NFIP adversely impacted endangered salmon.

The Antidote: Congress Must Fix the Disaster Aid Package

Congress should focus on providing disaster aid in a disaster aid package, rather than undercutting enforcement of the Endangered Species Act and siphoning off disaster mitigation dollars from FEMA to build questionable capital projects. 

It’s imperative that the Senate not include these poison pills in a supplemental disaster aid package. There are too many people in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Texas, Florida and elsewhere that need these funds to recover and make their communities more resilient and better prepared for future disasters.

Other items in the disaster aid package NRDC would like fixed:

  • Repairs to water and energy systems, particularly in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, where many people have been without water or power for months, will continue to be entrusted to FEMA. This would be an ideal time to allow the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) – agencies that have more expertise with the very systems that need to be rebuilt – to play a larger role. But FEMA, already overextended by multiple catastrophic disasters around the country, is left holding the bag. 
  • USEPA received $13 million to deal with problems at Superfund sites and leaking underground oil and gas tanks on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. This amount may be insufficient. The agency is not given any funding to assist with the wastewater and drinking water challenges on these islands. NRDC and other organizations have called for $2.5 billion to help rebuild water systems and make them more resilient, particularly in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • More funding should be designated specifically for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, given the unique challenges and scale of devastation there.

Among the items NRDC supports in this disaster aid package:

  • The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would receive $12.5 billion for helping communities decrease their vulnerability to future flood disasters. The funding would be made available to states and communities that have received supplemental disaster aid dating back to Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
  • The National Park Service would receive $182 million to repair the many parks and facilities in areas affected by hurricanes since August 2017. 
  • The Fish and Wildlife Service would receive $210 million for repair of National Wildlife Refuges and other damaged facilities.
  • The Center for Disease Control and Prevention would receive $96 million for public health response and assessments, which have been sorely needed.
  • The Department of Agriculture would receive $165 million for repairing rural water and wastewater systems.

Despite these items supported by NRDC, Congress must support frontline communities by eliminating these poison pills from the bill.

For a complete breakdown of the bill and where funding will go, check out Taxpayers for Common Sense’s disaster supplemental database.

About the Authors

Rob Moore

Senior Policy Analyst, Healthy People & Thriving Communities program
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