With the Bipartisan Budget Bill, Congress Missed its Chance to Reform FEMA for the Future
On Friday, the president signed into law the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. It’s a welcome move away from the biweekly brinksmanship that seems to characterize how Congress funds the government these days. At the last minute, the Senate added $89 billion to the bill for disaster recovery support. Much has been said and written about the unprecedented spate of disasters in 2017 – from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria to the California wildfires and mudslides. This funding will go a long way to help affected communities.
But conspicuously absent from disaster relief funding were reforms expected to be included with the bill as recently as four weeks ago. Collectively these reforms were called the Disaster Recovery Reform Act (DRRA).
In December, I wrote on this blog about how Congress failed to both pass funding for 2017 disasters and the DRRA. At that time, the two were joined into a single bill, though not attached to the broader budget package. With the passing of the Bipartisan Budget Act, however, disaster relief funding was lumped onto the big budget deal but the DRRA was not.
We at Hagerty hoped DRRA would pass along with disaster relief funding. In our view, the DRRA was a remarkably nonpartisan and useful piece of legislation for improving disaster recovery. Its reforms included increased funding for pre-disaster mitigation, stronger incentives to build infrastructure back better than before, and simplified rules for individual assistance. Together, we believed its reforms would have a more lasting effect on disaster recovery in the coming decades than the funding in the $89 billion itself.
In context, the bill is the largest in US history. And there are a few positive reforms squeezed into the bill. For instance, in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, FEMA’s Public Assistance (PA) program will pay for public facility and infrastructure repairs up to current nationally accepted codes and standards regardless of local codes at the time of the storm. Also, the Stafford Act will now include incentives for communities to increase the federal share of disaster funding from 75 percent to 85 percent if they take steps to plan for and mitigate against future disasters.
These isolated reforms are undoubtedly beneficial, but much more is needed to fix the approach of federal disaster recovery for affected families and communities. The full reform in the DRRA would have been a big step in the right direction – as promoted by the US House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in December.
US disasters in 2017 led to the longest activation of FEMA personnel in history. In the US, at least 16 weather and climate disaster events each caused more than $1 billion in damages, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National centers for Environmental Information (NCEI). Between 1980 and 2016, the annual average of such events is 5.5.
*Note: This graphic is as of October 6, 2017. Therefore, it excludes recent wildfires in northern and southern California.
It’s unfortunate that Congress missed this opportunity to reform disaster recovery. We can only hope that the window hasn’t closed, and that our country’s elected representatives will reintroduce far-reaching reforms like those in the DRRA a later date.
 Includes FTA, FHWA, USDA, FDA, NOAA, EPA, DOI, DOL, HHS, DOE, SBA, DOD, Coast Guard, and others.
Ari Renoni is a Deputy Director of Recovery Programs with Hagerty Consulting based in NYC. He serves as the Deputy Policy Team Lead supporting clients in the NYC Metro Area. Prior to Hagerty, Ari worked for the UN World Food Programme (WFP), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Ministry of Education in Namibia, and for the Center for Policy Research at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, where he also graduated with two graduate degrees: Master of Public Administration and Master of Arts in International Affair