A Holistic Approach to Improving Disaster Response

The federal government continues to address natural disasters after they occur in an ad-hoc, one-off, inadequately coordinated way. The result is that disaster funding decisions are made with insufficient time and political will to weigh concerns about long-term safety, mitigation and resiliency. Disaster preparedness and assistance should not be political. Federal resources should be used to reduce risk to Americans in high-risk areas, avoid harming natural buffers to storms, and protect taxpayers from wasteful and inefficient spending.

Federal spending on disaster relief has skyrocketed in recent years and the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) has borrowed billions from taxpayers to cover claims. Increased federal involvement in moderately sized local disasters, expanded development in vulnerable areas, and a lack of mitigation all have contributed to this increase in disaster costs. The SmarterSafer coalition—a diverse group of leading taxpayer advocates, environmental groups, insurers and others—believes this is the time to restructure federal disaster assistance programs. We support a holistic approach to disaster response that incorporates preparedness, mitigation, and responsible development so that our nation and our citizens are better prepared to respond when disaster strikes and the federal government is able to provide adequate relief. Supporting mitigation will over time, decrease the disaster assistance needed by communities. We also believe that post-disaster, Congress should respond in a two-step manner—first providing emergency funds as appropriate to meet immediate needs; the second step, rebuilding, must be subject to a more thorough review including well-designed plans that prioritize mitigation and account for future risks.

Thus, any disaster framework must be holistic and must do the following:
- Increase community resilience by prioritizing sustainable, environmentally friendly mitigation.
- Reduce risky development and unsustainable investments in disaster-prone areas.
- Maximize cost effectiveness of federal disaster funds and incentivize investment of non-federal resources.

To ensure a robust capacity to respond to disasters on a national level, the SmarterSafer coalition supports the following steps to protect those who live in disaster-prone areas, the environment and taxpayers:

Increase Community Resilience by Prioritizing Sustainable, Environmentally Friendly Mitigation
- Require states to adopt comprehensive mitigation plans as a precondition of receiving disaster assistance: Mitigation plans should accurately identify hazards and future risks and should identify opportunities for improving the resilience of damaged infrastructure. Ensuring that states and localities have the data and understanding of risks and vulnerability will be important to this process. Good data and planning will ensure that responses to disasters are effective, efficient and that rebuilding occurs in a way that reduces risk.
- Provide Incentivizes for Mitigation in Disaster Assistance. Rather than providing communities with blank checks post-disaster, federal funds should be commensurate with state/community plans for rebuilding in resilient ways, updating infrastructure for long-term use, and mitigating future risk. This could be accomplished by linking the amount of federal disaster funding provided to states with their commitment and progress in undertaking a variety of resiliency measures such as strengthening building codes, conserving and restoring natural disaster buffers like floodplains, wetlands, and dunes, and developing plans to strengthen resilience—states would have to undertake this measures to receive the full share of disaster funding from the federal government.

Reduce Risky Development in Disaster-Prone Areas
- Develop a framework of codes, standards, and guidelines for critical structural resilience: The framework would include national voluntary standards for infrastructure resilience and guidelines for land use, restoration of natural systems and other structural mitigation options, especially in known hazard areas.
- Update the minimum requirements for communities that participate in the NFIP: Participation in the NFIP should be conditioned on adoption of stronger building codes, undertaking resiliency efforts, and frameworks for mitigation.
- Require communities participating in the NFIP to conduct a vulnerability assessment of their critical facilities: Vital infrastructure such as electrical delivery systems, power generators, water treatment facilities, emergency response facilities and hospitals located in flood hazard areas should be made as secure as possible and risks should be realistically calculated and contingency plans developed in advance of disasters.
- The federal government should not provide subsidies to risky development. Phasing out subsidies in the NFIP is critical to ensure the federal government is not paying for people to live in harm’s way; Congress should reject any calls to further subsidize risky development, including calls for a natural catastrophe insurance fund.

Maximize Cost Effectiveness of Federal Disaster Funds and Incentivize Investment of Non-Federal Resources
- Create more demanding standards for disaster assistance: Both the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Obama administration have issued recommendations and executive orders that set up new, heightened standards for the allocation of federal disaster assistance. Congress should consider implementing heightened standards to ensure funds are spent efficiently and in ways that reduce risk.
- Federal Disaster Assistance should be Provided for Larger Scale Disasters: FEMA relies primarily on statewide per capita damage as indication of whether to recommend that a state receive federal disaster relief funding. This per capita indicator has remained artificially low and has not been adjusted for increases in personal income or inflation, increasing federal spending on disasters where needs might be met by state and local governments. The per capita damage indicator should be raised to lessen the required federal intervention and focus this intervention on instances when state and local efforts cannot meet the disaster needs.
- Require states have disaster response plans. States should have more comprehensive, unified disaster response plans that not only include mitigation, but that include plans for disaster response that rely in part on state response as well as on volunteers where possible.
- Encourage the use of existing volunteer networks: Current disaster response relies heavily on paid professionals and states should plan ahead of time to work with existing volunteer networks, including Citizens Corps. This should be a component of states’ hazard mitigation plans. By providing support to volunteer efforts, the federal government could actually reduce overall disaster spending.
- Encourage states to transfer risk to the private sector. Federal and state governments should explore opportunities to transfer risk to the private market through public-private partnerships that will shift some post-disaster financial burdens to the private market from taxpayers.