The torrential rain that recently inundated West Virginia exposed an ongoing weakness in the way our nation prepares for and responds to natural disasters. Rather than pursuing strategies that minimize the damage from storms before they hit, federal disaster policy prioritizes paying for the clean-up and recovery that follows major weather events.
Increasingly severe, and potentially more frequent, natural disasters combined with increasingly urban and water adjacent development, demographic movement and rising sea levels are posing unprecedented risks to life and property. Despite these dangers, federal disaster policies have remained largely stagnant, leaving communities across the nation ill equipped to handle this new reality.
For example, federal funds made available to communities under the Stafford Act, the law which dictates how the United States prepares for and responds to disasters, are almost entirely focused on post disaster response. The more damage there is, the more resources a community receives, regardless of whether the community took proactive steps to reduce their risks. In contrast, there is little money available to help communities undertake more pre-disaster risk reduction.
As a result, several municipalities and states are taking matters into their own hands to minimize the impact of future storms.
In the wake of Sandy’s disastrous landfall in 2012, New York City embarked on a significant storm resiliency program that included installing sand dunes, implementing stronger building codes and developing smarter evacuation maps.
In 2013, Florida approved reforms that phased out state insurance subsidies for new construction in coastal regions, a change that reduces budget-busting subsidies and protects Florida’s coastline, wildlife habitats, and natural storm buffers.
In Delaware, investments in natural defenses like dunes, wetlands, and living shorelines seem to have contributed to reduced impacts during recent storms.
There’s a huge bipartisan opportunity for Washington to learn from these leading examples and prioritize storm preparedness.
According to a 2007 study by FEMA, every $1 spent on mitigation efforts leads to $4 in future benefits and reduce the massive federal outlays after major floods and storms.
Similarly, reforming the nearly $24 billion National Flood Insurance Program so that it no longer subsidizes new construction in high risk, environmentally sensitive areas would be both a win for taxpayers and for natural resources.
A smarter, safer approach would be both fiscally and scientifically sound. It should include a national mitigation plan, modeled after the most effective local efforts, encouraging and funding mitigation strategies that protect people and property from catastrophic damage. Promoting measures, such as buyouts, elevating buildings and enhancing natural defenses, would significantly reduce the damage communities’ to often experience after a storm. We also believe that placing greater priority on the research and restoration of natural systems will provide highly cost-effective protection for our coastlines, riverine areas, and adjacent communities.
One immediate action Congress can take is to support the proposed federal Flood Risk Management Standard, which has received widespread expert support, and would require that taxpayer owned or funded buildings and infrastructure are or built to withstand flooding events.
Congress can also act on legislation currently pending in the Senate – The Flood Insurance Market Parity and Modernization Act – that would both strengthen the federal flood insurance program and open up the market to private insurers.
This legislation would also introduce new methods of calculating risks, reduce administration costs, and allow for innovative ways to plan for and execute mitigation activities. The House passed this bill – unanimously - in a contentious election year with support from a wide range of stakeholders. We urge the Senate to follow suit.
The busy start to this year’s storm season should serve as a wake-up call. Across the country, there are many leading examples of forward-thinking restoration effectors that could be replicated and a number of opportunities for Congress to take strong bipartisan action.
By developing a national mitigation strategy that actually readies the country for severe weather, we will limit damage to communities and businesses, save lives, protect our natural resources, and save taxpayers billions of dollars.
Collin O’Mara is the President of the National Wildlife Federation. Stephen Weinstein is the Group General Counsel of RenaissanceRe and Chair of the RenaissanceRe Risk Sciences Foundation.