The United States has had a record-breaking year for extreme weather. Federal Emergency Management Administrator Brock Long told the Senate and House in October that more than 25 million people in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and elsewhere were affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. All the while, communities in the West are still picking up the pieces in the wake of destructive wildfires. With estimates of $290 billion in damages from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, a $94.4 billion appeal for disaster recovery assistance from Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, and a $7.4 billion request for aid from California officials following the deadliest wildfires in the state’s history, the need for supplemental disaster aid from the federal government could easily top $300 billion.
This unrelenting series of extreme weather events means that Congress urgently needs to pass a robust aid package to help families across America, particularly in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, restore access to safe drinking water, electricity, food and housing, and get back on their feet. But they need to do more than that. Four times as many counties across the nation today are regularly affected by the worst extreme weather events compared to 40 years ago, as climate change fuels more intense and frequent disasters. Low income families and communities of color are hit the hardest because they are the least able to prepare for and recover from disasters, and are often exposed to disproportionately high levels of pollution.
First, Congress must include in the next disaster aid package flexible funding that vulnerable communities can use to reduce future disaster risks. Congress can do this by replicating and expanding programs that have proven successful in the wake of other severe weather events. For example, the Superstorm Sandy recovery bill created the Section 428 program, which has helped finance an innovative approach to rebuilding the boardwalk in the hardhit Rockaway Beach neighborhood in a way that creates recreation space, reduces future disaster risks and protects the community beyond.
Second, the disaster package should provide incentives for communities to rethink where and how they build. New York City recently created new forward-thinking design guidelines so that capital projects are built to withstand more extreme heat and floods. Congress should create a grant program to help local leaders update design guidelines for buildings and infrastructure to minimize future disaster damages and costs. Empowering local leaders is critical. Since 2013, more than 1,000 U.S. counties have been affected by disasters.
Additionally, in too many places, the flood maps that determine whether homeowners and businesses must carry flood insurance are woefully out of date. This puts families at risk, and increases the costs of rebuilding. About 40 percent of homes damaged by Hurricane Harvey were outside the 100-year floodplain. As they did after Superstorm Sandy, Congress should appropriate funds for FEMA to update flood maps in the regions affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
Third, Congress needs to recognize that when it comes to extreme weather, the old adage is true: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Nonetheless, Congress has spent 460 times more on disaster recovery than on actions to reduce disaster risks and costs before catastrophe strikes. Studies show that every dollar invested in pre-disaster mitigation programs prevents four dollars in costs later on. Congress should expand FEMA’s successful Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program, which supports projects such as buyouts of flood-prone properties and storm-proofing schools, hospitals and drinking water systems, by fivefold so it can provide at least $500 million annually to communities.
Finally, while this year’s hurricanes and wildfires were devastating, these events do not capture the full geographic reach and economic cost of extreme weather. The Superstorm Sandy response pioneered a $1 billion National Disaster Resilience Competition, which offered competitive grants to all states and communities hit by major disasters in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Given the enormous need for disaster-resilient infrastructure across the country, Congress should launch a second, $2 billion round of the National Disaster Resilience Competition for communities affected by recent disasters.
At a recent Center for American Progress event, former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate was characteristically plainspoken when he mused, “I don’t know why everybody talks about FEMA money. It ain’t FEMA’s money. It’s your tax dollars.” By funding programs that help build stronger, safer and more resilient communities, Congress can both help families recover from this year’s disaster and be good stewards of the nation’s finances.
Cathleen Kelly is a senior fellow for energy and environment at the Center for American Progress. Kristina Costa is a senior fellow focused on climate change and energy policy at the Center for American Progress.