Disaster Discourse: The Hagerty Blog

Disaster Discourse: The Hagerty Blog

Obama Budget Bad Omen for Disaster Recovery

Obama Budget Bad Omen for Disaster Recovery

The President’s 2017 Budget: A Bad Omen for Efforts to Prepare for Future Disasters

The White House’s $4.1 trillion 2017 budget[1] proposal calls for deep funding cuts to federal programs that help communities prepare for natural and man-made disasters.  Across three such FEMA-funded programs, the proposed budget eliminates nearly $600 million, or 35 percent of funding, compared to 2016 levels.[2]

The President’s proposal slashes FEMA support to communities planning for and mitigating against natural disasters.[3] These cuts are being proposed despite the Administration’s recognition of the increased risk of severe natural disasters due to the effects of climate change.

For example, just last December in Paris the United States stood with China, Russia, Brazil and nearly every other nation in adopting a landmark global climate agreement.[4]  In his speech, President Obama warned[5] that climate change may be the foremost challenge of the 21st Century – a point he echoed loudly in his 2016 State of the Union.[6]

This rhetoric is to be expected.  It reflects the President’s longstanding focus on climate change over his tenure.  Here in the US, those efforts culminated in August 2015, when Obama revealed the final draft of his 2015 Clean Power Plan[7] to coincide with the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit[8] in NYC. However, the President’s rhetoric does not match his actions in proposing cuts to these vital programs.

Natural Disasters and Climate Change

The Obama Administration has long-emphasized the link between a changing climate and extreme weather natural disasters, which are more frequent and severe today than ever before.[9]

In 2012 alone, extreme weather cost Americans more than $100 billion, according to the White House.  Hurricane Sandy alone led to 117 fatalities[10] and caused at least $65 billion of mainly flood-related damage.[11]  About 10 years ago, Hurricane Katrina killed many more – about 1,200 people[12] – and cost the country $120 billion.[13]

The Effectiveness of Disaster Risk Reduction

Last year, Former FEMA Director R. David Paulison testified before Congress to the importance of funding disaster risk reduction.  “Studies have shown,” he argued, “that every $1 invested in mitigation saves taxpayers $4 on recovery.”[14]

Federal funding is the lifeblood of local disaster preparedness and mitigation.  Budget-constrained communities across the country have a hard time paying for even basic government services, leaving little to fund the development of resilient infrastructure and other measures.  This resource scarcity, compounded by increased frequency of extreme weather nationwide, means that cost-effective federal programs are absolutely critical to reducing future costs.

The Road Ahead

On February 10, 2016, the Supreme Court[15] ruled 5-4 that the White House’s Clean Power Plan, which targets 2030 to reduce CO2 emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels,[16] could not move ahead.  The sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia just three days later makes the Plan’s already dubious destiny even more uncertain.

For now, the ruling derails important progress made by the Obama Administration on domestic climate change policy.  Long-term, it could hamper the US’ ability to meet its Paris commitment – a harsh prospect given the President’s hard-fought battle to promote the agreement.

In the meantime, the federal government must concentrate on funding proven Mitigation programs that assist local communities in reducing the human and financial costs of extreme weather.  This is not the time to reduce funding to preparedness and mitigation programs. As Benjamin Franklin famously quipped, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”




[1] “The President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2017.” Office of Management and Budget, The White House. February 9, 2016.  (Available here).

[2] Ibid. “Cuts, Consolidations, and Savings.” p. 110 lists FEMA Preparedness Grants ($460M reduction: $1,317M to $857M), FEMA Education, Training, and Exercises ($76M reduction: $233M to $157M), and FEMA Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grants ($46M reduction: $100M to $54M)

[3] The White House proposes the following funding cuts to FEMA grants, both related to counterterrorism and preparing for natural disasters (see page 110 of The President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2017):

  • FEMA Preparedness Grants: 35 percent, or $460 million, cut from 2016 levels
  • FEMA Education, Training, and Exercises: 33 percent, or $76 million, cut from 2016 levels
  • FEMA Pre-disaster Mitigation Grants: 46 percent, or $46 million, cut from 2016 levels

[4] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “Adoption of the Paris Agreement.” Conference of the Parties.  Twenty-first session. December 12, 2015. (Available here)

[5] “Remarks of President Barack Obama – State of the Union Address As Delivered.” The White House. January 13, 2016. (Available here)

[6] “Remarks by President Obama at the First Session of COP 21.” Paris, France at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). November 30, 2015. (Available here)

[7] “Climate Change and President Obama’s Action Plan.” The White House. (Available here)

[8] “UN Sustainable Development Summit.” September 2016 in New York City. (Available here)

“UN Sustainable Development Goals – SDGs”. UN Division for Sustainable Development, UN-DESA. September 2016. (Available here)

[9] “Climate Change and President Obama’s Action Plan.” The White House. (Available here)

[10] “Deaths Associated with Hurricane Sandy – October-November 2012.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. May 24, 2013. (Available here)

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Hurricanes in History: Hurricane Katrina.” National Hurricane Center. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Available here)

[13] Barnosky, Jason. “Before the Storm: Shifting Federal Disaster Policy Toward Mitigation.” Brookings.  February 19, 2015.  (Available here)

[14] Testimony of Robert David Paulison, Former Director, Federal Emergency Management Agency, before the House Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management. January 27, 2015. (Available here)

[15] Wallach, Philip A. “Tuesday’s Other Big News: Supreme Court Stays Obama’s Clean Power Plan.” Brookings.  February 10, 2016. (Available here)

[16] Federal Register. Vol. 80. No. 205. Environmental Protection Agency.  Final Rule: Carbon Pollution Emissions Guidelines for Existing Stationary Sources. October 23, 2015. (Available here)