Building Smarter After Natural Disaster
The cycle of disaster once again reared its ugly head this fall after years of relative quiet. In the span of a month, a wave of hurricanes took its horrible toll in human lives and left coastal communities underwater, destroying homes and businesses, while displacing millions of families.
In a way, America has been lucky. The last major hurricane to make landfall in the United States as a Category 3 or stronger storm was Wilma in October of 2005. In 2016, 480,000 Americans sought disaster aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and fewer than 180,000 people registered for disaster assistance in each of the three years prior.
This year was different. On top of the typical storms, floods and fires that we anticipate, this hurricane season made history, with storms battering approximately 8 percent of the U.S. population.
The federal dollars help tell the story. This year alone, more than 4.7 million Americans have registered for disaster aid so far. In response to the destruction of these storms, Congress has been asked for an extra $44 billion in a disaster relief supplemental for FEMA and the community block grant program.
These are massive numbers that weigh heavily on an already strained federal budget. Yet, as the density of American communities continues to increase, so do those in the firing line of disasters. Population growth and suburban sprawl will continue, increasing the number of Americans exposed to potentially damaging storms. We need a better plan. It’s time to stop asking “what now?” right after a catastrophe, and focus on “what’s next?” when we are preparing for future disasters.
This is why Congress should rethink our approach to disaster funding and elevate mitigation as a top priority while disaster prone areas rebuild. Instead of rebuilding destroyed infrastructure as we have for decades, let’s ensure mitigation infrastructure replaces what failed during the disaster.
By increasing our focus on pre-disaster planning and mitigation, we can build and rebuild better and smarter. This in turn reduces future loss of life and rising costs substantially. For every $1 spent in mitigation, between $4 and $8 is saved in avoided disaster recovery costs.
Effective mitigation encompasses a wide variety of activities, including preparation and planning, elevating or moving structures prone to flooding, and hardening structures to head-off the effects of hurricanes or earthquakes. A greater emphasis on mitigation will save lives, minimize damage to property, and reduce disaster costs, saving taxpayers billions of dollars.
The density of America’s urban, suburban and even rural areas will continue to challenge the ability of local communities to build sustainable infrastructure for the future. This year serves as a warning and a lesson to communities across the country to prepare for the most likely natural disasters they may face. Mitigation on the front-end will lighten the burden on the back-end.
No dollar amount can be assigned to the victims of a disaster. America will continue to be there whenever disaster strikes to provide robust and effective assistance. But as we rebuild from 2017 and prepare for future disasters, we must reexamine where we can improve our federal programs. Let’s look to mitigation as a key to improvement.
Barletta represents Pennsylvania’s 11th District and is the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management.