At a time when our nation is in the midst of a global pandemic, Americans can’t afford for another disaster to strike. The effects of natural catastrophes are no secret – we’ve seen the impacts of last year’s California wildfires and the intensifying hurricanes that regularly plague the southeast coasts. What we have yet to experience, however, are how to manage disaster relief efforts look like while simultaneously fighting a global health pandemic.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the agency at the frontlines of every disaster including COVID-19, has advised its first responders to implement social distancing among disaster victims, limiting the number of victims that can be treated in field offices to a maximum of four at a time. In Tennessee and Iowa, springtime tornados have ravaged communities, leaving many local officials bewildered as to how to appropriately respond without risking further exposure to the virus. This becomes especially difficult due to the lack of available COVID-19 tests across the country. These complexities will only further intensify as more natural disasters strike, all while shelters face the immense task of housing victims six feet apart.
As hurricane and wildfire seasons fast approach, in addition to researcher predictions of a fall COVID-19 resurgence, Americans must ask: are we prepared to deal with another crisis?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. The recent COVID-19 outbreak highlights the overwhelming need to overhaul disaster preparedness planning in this country. The scarce availability of supplies to fight COVID-19 – such as the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and respiratory ventilators – only magnifies the urgency to allocate more resources to our local, state, and federal governments before the next crisis occurs. These are the lessons we are learning from the current health pandemic and they should be a warning sign to policymakers that we need to prioritize crisis mitigation efforts as we prepare to face head-on the harsh realities of the next hurricane and wildfire seasons.
Specifically, the federal government must invest before disaster hits. Like COVID-19 is demonstrating in the health care sector, we spend overwhelmingly more money on post-disaster cleanup and reconstruction than on pre-disaster mitigation when it comes to natural catastrophes. Yet pre-disaster mitigation efforts far better protect Americans and save taxpayer dollars. Every $1 spent on mitigation is estimated to save $6 on post-disaster spending.
With the 2020 hurricane season expected to see more activity than previous seasons, some of the efforts desperately needed now to mitigate climate change include reinforcing our transportation infrastructure, boosting coastal protection, relocating homes and businesses away from flood and fire zones, and promoting sustainability in our daily behaviors. Federal mitigation funding should prioritize the areas most at-risk for natural disasters and strengthen features that can help buffer large storms, like coastlines that contain natural infrastructure such as reefs, marshes, wetlands, and dunes. If no action is taken, we can expect to continue to see significant damage from storms, flooding, and wildfires, which translates to even more taxpayer dollars spent on reconstruction and cleanup efforts.
It’s time for policymakers to prioritize smarter and safer infrastructure investments that promote resiliency and better use of taxpayer dollars. Congress should direct funding to projects that can withstand natural disasters; state governments should consider the implementation of new elevation guidelines so future infrastructure investments are made on projects that are above-flood level construction.
The COVID-19 pandemic should serve as a warning sign spotlighting the importance of disaster preparedness and the overwhelming need to impose crisis mitigation strategies nationwide. Let’s learn from recent history and confront the realities of natural disasters ahead of the curve instead of scrambling to flatten it after the fact.
Stephen Pociask is the CEO of the American Consumer Institute; Collin O’Mara is the CEO of the National Wildlife Federation; Jeff Kupfer is President of ConservAmerica and Eli Lehrer is the President of R Street.