We cannot plan for disaster recovery based on unpredictable federal aid

We cannot plan for disaster recovery based on unpredictable federal aid
© Getty

In the wake of Hurricane Dorian’s trail of destruction , affected communities in the United States and elsewhere are beginning the process of recovery while preparing for what may strike next.

Some of these communities may also have the secondary burden of preparing for an uncertain portfolio of federal assistance to support recovery. The kind of assistance that will be available — and when it will be available — will be influenced by public interest, political attention and legislative temperament. These are the hallmarks of our broken system of disaster recovery.

In discussing why FEMA will spend more in the next two years than in the past 37, former FEMA Administrator Brock Long points out that there are as many as 90 recovery programs spread across 20 different federal agencies.

ADVERTISEMENT

For many of these programs, Congress needs to pass supplemental appropriations, which then need to be received and administered by their respective federal agency. The money then flows to states who then need to hire staff to receive and administer these funds. Survivors from the storm can be kept in this bureaucratic limbo for months or even years as these processes unfold.

As we have seen more and more billion dollar disasters, these special congressional appropriations have become the norm. Each of these appropriations vary in terms of the timing on when it is passed, and what kinds of assistance is then made available.

Hurricane Katrina had eight supplemental appropriations between September 2005 and July of 2010. Supplemental funding for Hurricane Sandy was passed by Congress nearly three months after the storm made landfall. More recently, emergency disaster supplementals have come in pieces, and have had funding for multiple other disasters merged into the same appropriations.

But getting the funds appropriated by Congress is only the first step. They then need to go to the states to administer them under the various federal rules attached to each program. It took a year and a half after Hurricane Sandy before the New York City Build it Back program provided its first reimbursement checks. The program consistently missed deadlines and was hamstrung by its hasty creation and federal restrictions on funding. New York City is not alone in wrestling with these recovery challenges. North Carolina had similar challenges in managing recovery funds from Hurricane Matthew, and shifted to a more pro-active approach by creating their Office of Recovery and Resiliency to help streamline recovery to past and future disasters.

Of the $107 billion in recovery funds appropriated by Congress for major disasters in 2017 and 2018, less than a third has been spent as of June 2019. There are some legitimate reasons for this. Some projects take longer to plan and propose than others, and taking time to re-build more resilient infrastructure takes longer than reckless rebuilding in hazard prone areas. But the majority of these delays are bureaucratic, not strategic.

ADVERTISEMENT

We cannot continue to plan recovery based on unpredictable legislative agendas, and then rely on states to play catch-up to receive, interpret then administer the funds. The delay in meeting the needs of survivors is too long, and the inefficiencies of these programs is extending the burden on the disaster survivors when they are at their most vulnerable. We continue to see lasting impacts on the health and mental health of survivors long after the response ends and recovery supposedly begins.

Simplifying recovery funding should be the first step. 90 programs across 20 agencies is about 85 programs and 15 agencies too many. Shifting recovery funding to block grants for key recovery areas (e.g. energy, housing, transportation, etc) and standardizing accountability across all programs will go a long way to reduce the administrative burden of states in receiving funds after disasters strike, while also providing greater flexibility to meet the true needs by those closest to the impact.

Additionally, shifting preparedness funding priorities to build more robust recovery offices at the state level before disasters occur will also reduce the tendency to create ad hoc offices and hire entire divisions of staff after a disaster.

This means that some agencies may need to give up disaster relief programs, and others will need to take on expanded responsibilities. It also means that our state and national preparedness resources will need to focus a little more on administrative preparedness for disaster recovery. But in the long run, the quality of response means very little if recovery never happens. 

To build lasting resilience to the growing disasters we face, we need to do more than just prepare to resist and respond to the threats. We need to re-examine how we prepare our communities and our nation to bounce back, and to ensure that meeting the needs of families and communities affected by these tragedies does not end when recovery is supposed to begin.

Jeff Schlegelmilch is the deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Follow him on twitter @jeffschlegel.