Texas and Florida were battered within weeks of each other by unusually powerful hurricanes, and this year alone, more than eight million acres have been consumed by raging forest fires in the western United States. Natural disasters happen more often, do more damage and cost more money than ever before, and it’s time that we have a national strategy to deal with them.
Congress should establish a national conference of federal, state and local officials, relief organizations and other stakeholders to create a long-term plan for coping with increasingly dangerous and frequent natural disasters. Such a commission should come together with the goal of planning for the next flood, fire, earthquake, tornado, drought and deep freeze we are sure to face.
Congress can better enact policies to mitigate the damage of natural disasters. First, there is a better way to handle disasters than appropriating money for relief after each catastrophe. In a previous era of politics, this wouldn’t be a problem, but conditions are such that any “must pass bill” like funding for the victims of hurricanes creates opportunities for partisan irresponsibility in Congress. It’s true that the federal government has a spending and debt problem, but that issue should be completely separate from helping people who just lost their homes, livelihoods or worse.
Instead, Congress, in consultation with state and local government, should create a national strategy for disaster relief and prevention including funding replenished each year through predictable sources. Democrats, in the past, have proposed taxing carbon energy producers and other polluters. Obviously this solution does not appeal to most Republicans. But perhaps, as we enjoy a brief moment of bipartisanship after storms that tore down the homes of Democrats and Republicans alike, Congress can find a mix of revenue streams to create such a fund in a bipartisan way.
Second, those moneys shouldn’t be used exclusively for emergency relief, which is obviously critical. As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Of course you can’t prevent a hurricane or an earthquake, but you can help communities likely to be affected by natural disasters better prepare to handle them. By investing in infrastructure improvements in vulnerable areas, we can prevent the worst effects of natural disasters.
One type of disaster I am most familiar with is wildfires. Funding to fight wildfires comes in two parts. Prevention funding reduces wildfire intensity and regularity by thinning trees, removing underbrush and having controlled burns of areas that need them. This makes forests less ignitable and fires less intense. The second part funds wildfire suppression which includes air tankers, fire fighters and fire equipment. Due to underfunding, wildfire prevention funds are being raided to pay for suppression, creating a vicious cycle. Congress should take the lesson learned by this funding shortfall and apply it to all the future disasters this country is sure to face.
In Louisiana, the loss of coastal wetlands and lack of sufficient investment in levy and storm surge prevention infrastructure directly contributed to the damage wreaked by Hurricane Katrina. Similarly, Houston’s urban sprawl and lack of investment in storm surge prevention infrastructure worsened the impact of flooding across the city. Coastal Florida is particularly vulnerable to storm surges as well.
A disaster relief fund should identify vulnerable areas and give grants to communities likely to face disasters. These communities could spend this money preparing themselves for the inevitable. The emphasis of these grants should be infrastructure development that would mitigate the damage done by disasters likely to strike that region. This would create jobs in those communities and make people living their safer.
By creating a national strategy for disaster relief with dedicated and sufficient revenue, Congress can help communities become more resilient to natural disasters, avoid the potentially ugly politics of ad hoc disaster funding, and make important investments in millions of American communities who face the threat of natural disasters.
Dan Glickman served as U.S. secretary of agriculture under President Clinton and represented Kansas in Congress for 18 years. He is now an executive director at the Aspen Institute and a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.