Policy Studies

Bracing for the storm

The attached report was co-authored jointly by members of the SmarterSafer Coalition.

Hurricanes, floods, fires, and heat waves resulting in millions of dollars of damage are no longer unusual events. They are now a fact of life, posing increased risk to life and property while driving up the costs of recovery. Both catastrophic and smaller-scale floods have been on the rise in communities throughout the country. The Western wildfire season has grown longer as warmer temperatures and longer periods of drought have become more common, and tropical storms and hurricanes have brought catastrophic damage to the U.S. over the past two decades. Disasters with a price tag exceeding $1 billion, previously limited to one or two per year, now occur at least five to 10 times per year. Recent payouts for events like Superstorm Sandy have shattered previous records, taking a toll both on the federal budget and on the National Flood Insurance Program, which is now more than $23 billion in debt.

As the frequency, severity, and cost of these disasters grows and federal spending on recovery rises, individuals, communities, and state and local governments must do everything possible to ensure they can withstand the next storm.

Our current natural disaster policy framework focuses heavily on responding to disasters, rather than putting protective measures in place to reduce our vulnerability and limit a disaster’s impact. This needlessly exposes Americans to greater risks to life and property and results in much higher costs to the federal government.

Over the past few decades, the financial burden of disaster response has fallen increasingly on the federal government. Federal funds are provided post-disaster, with few standards to define the parameters for federal intervention or rules to ensure funds are used in an efficient way. The problem is also evident in the chaotic passage of aid following a disaster, which often results in significant new outlays that have little to do with emergency relief.

Neither the states nor the federal government devote sufficient resources to preparing communities and citizens for these growing risks. The ready availability of government aid after a disaster actually reduces individual and community incentives to invest in mitigation and makes it less likely homeowners and businesses will insure their property for disaster.

These problems are also embedded in the National Flood Insurance Program, which has long used federal insurance subsidies to mask the true risks of flooding. This federal program now faces a multibillion-dollar debt to US taxpayers as a result of increasingly powerful storms and hurricanes.

Moreover, there is little coordination between federal, state, and local governments and agencies, as well as private businesses and industry groups, when it comes to preparing for and mitigating before a storm or other disaster.

Rather than continuing on this course, the federal government must begin overhauling current disaster policies.

This report identifies several reforms that could move the policy framework in a more sustainable direction.

Encourage Planning and Mitigation:

Fortify Infrastructure:

Reform Flood Insurance:

Ensure Equity:

Improve Coordination:

This report lays out a roadmap to a more rational approach to federal disaster policies that will save taxpayer dollars, protect the environment, and better prepare all Americans for the risks they face. With all signs pointing to a more dangerous, disaster-prone future, it is vital that the federal government starts preparing for these changes immediately.

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