4 ways Congress can hit the reset button on disaster preparedness
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Recently, Congress passed a continuing resolution to fund the government through April of next year. The final bill also included $170 million to address some of the infrastructure issues causing the lead exposure in drinking water in Flint, Mich. In addition, disaster-affected areas such as those hit by Hurricane Matthew, the floods in Baton Rouge, and others were given $4.1 billion in disaster assistance.

The passage of this would be laudable were it not coming nearly a year after the governor of Michigan declared Flint to be in a State of Emergency and nearly five months after the historic 1,000-year flooding event in Louisiana.

This is a cycle repeated after disasters, where emergency managers and responders are left in limbo over how to plan and pay for disasters because existing funding mechanisms are insufficient.

At its core, this is a structural issue, rooted in a lack of legislative preparedness that directly impacts our ability to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters.

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The 115th Congress has an opportunity to develop a legislative agenda designed to apply the lessons of past events and to better our overall national resilience by improving our legislative preparedness, using the following four priorities.

 

1. Revising the Stafford Act to meet the needs of the 21st Century

The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act is the backbone of our disaster response framework, governing the national response to disasters and creating a vehicle for funding the response and recovery without requiring special appropriations. However, the act does not allow for infrastructure disasters like the lead in the water in Flint, to be declared as full disasters. This denies these emergencies the highest levels of support available under this legislation. Catastrophic events such as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy have also required supplemental legislation to fund response and recovery since standing legislation was insufficient.

Congress should revise the Stafford Act to enhance its ability to apply to 21st century threats, particularly in the context of our aging infrastructure, technological vulnerabilities and an increase in extreme events that exceed the currently legislated capacities.

2. Establishing a permanent fund for public health emergency response

Over this past year, Zika came up for consideration several times before finally being passed in September’s continuing resolution, nearly seven months after the president’s request. In the interim, response dollars had to be taken from public health preparedness coffers, Ebola response funds and other public health priorities. Similar emergency funding was required for the response to the Ebola crisis. This underscores the need for a standing fund for public health emergency response. There are currently several ideas ranging from a fund of $300 million to $5 billion. In fact, there is a vehicle for Public Health Emergency Funding created in 1983 but only replenished twice, and at levels inadequate for the scope of crises like Ebola and Zika.

To ensure our nation is prepared to respond to emerging public health threats, Congress should revise the Public Health Emergency Fund to include funding levels appropriate for the threats that we face, and include a replenishment schema that avoids the drawn-out politics we have seen with ad hoc emergency funding for health threats.

3. Increasing state and local preparedness resources

State and local preparedness dollars have decreased dramatically since 2003. Public health preparedness dollars have been reduced by 30 percent and healthcare preparedness has been cut by nearly half. State and local homeland security funding has also been cut by as much as half in some areas. Although national guidance for preparedness has shifted toward “whole community,” the underwriting of community preparedness continues to decline.

Without local capacities, national resources have no vehicle to reach those affected by a disaster. Congress should increase both authorization levels and appropriated funds for grant programs for state and local preparedness. This includes the Public Health Emergency Preparedness Program and the Hospital Preparedness Program funded through the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the State Homeland Security Program and the Urban Area Security Initiative, funded through the Department of Homeland Security.

4. Incentivizing more active private sector participation in disasters

Although government has the mandate and many of the resources for disaster response, much of our national capacity and expertise lies in the private sector. Despite this, there are barriers to private sector participation such as liability, perception of favoritism and lack of a common response language, among many others. Elements of private sector response can be seen in past responses like the Ebola crisis, but as random acts of effectiveness rather than a coordinated response.

The private sector also has expertise and approaches to solving problems that could contribute positively to our national disaster response, but to achieve this we need to develop a better business model for engaging the private sector. Congress should formally engage a panel inclusive of government and private sector representatives to develop legislative recommendations for removing barriers and incentivizing the private sector to participate more fully in building community resilience and national preparedness.

This is not an exhaustive list. There are many other topics that require urgent attention. To date nearly 80 percent of the recommendations from the National Commission on Children in Disasters remain unfulfilled. The bipartisan Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense has also highlighted that we are still far from building up adequate biodefense capabilities. There is much work to do, along with plenty of opportunities to include these issues as bills are drafted in the busy legislative season ahead.

While there are many ambitions of the incoming Congress, ensuring a stronger legislative framework for disaster preparedness, response and recovery is in place should be a top priority. If we choose to ignore this, history will continue to repeat itself and the individuals and families affected by disasters will continue to shoulder the burden. With congressional action, this increased resilience will cascade across all of American and ensure that our quality of life, values and economy are not unduly threatened by the disasters that we will inevitably face.

 

Jeff Schlegelmilch (@jeffschlegel) is the deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. He has over a decade of experience in developing programs for community resilience and public health preparedness. Over that period he has advised numerous local, state and federal officials on preparedness policies and programs.

Irwin Redlener, MD, (@IrwinRedlenerMD) is the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and professor of Health Policy and Management and Pediatrics at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. He is the is the author of “Americans At Risk: Why We Are Not Prepared For Megadisasters and What We Can Do Now,” published in 2006 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.


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