Welcome back to Disaster Discourse Monthly!
This year, we are changing our format to feature the expertise of our leadership every quarter. Today at Disaster Discourse Monthly, Brock Long, Executive Chairman of Hagerty and former FEMA Administrator, and Matt Hochstein, Hagerty’s Vice President of Client Services, discuss rethinking the United States (US) Disaster Response and Recovery.
Rethinking U.S. Disaster Response and Recovery
Brock Long & Matt Hochstein
Across the country, people continue to experience unprecedented disasters in both frequency and magnitude. From the historic hurricanes and wildfires in 2017 and 2018 to the ongoing Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19), communities nationwide acutely feel the impacts. Events of this scale often point out deficiencies in the response effort and should spark evaluation of bold reforms. Today, with trillions of federal funds being spent on disaster and pandemic response and recovery nationwide, we must rethink our approach. Additionally, we must think beyond natural disasters and acts of terrorism and prepare for all types of hazards the nation may face.
To effectively reduce both federal outlays spending and the complexity of community recovery, the post-disaster assistance process must be simplified and incentivize investments in resilience.
Recovery is, unequivocally, the longest phase of the disaster cycle and presents the most visible results. It is here that we see the biggest opportunity for innovation, leadership, and equitable resilient practices. Why? The decentralized federal disaster recovery system poses considerable bureaucratic challenges and often makes the road to recovery difficult to navigate. Today, over 20 federal agencies have more than 90 programs to assist with varying aspects of disaster recovery, many of which rely heavily on active participation by state and local governments for their effective implementation. Yet, many state and local leaders cannot be active partners in their long-term recovery as often times that they have not planned for recovery efforts; do not fully understand what federal funding they are entitled to; or how to successfully sequence varying funding sources to maximize return. The bottom line is, most communities will continue to find it challenging to prioritize investments in recovery-related skillsets in the face of competing demands and constrained fiscal resources at the local-level.
Additionally, the burgeoning cost of community recovery has exposed the ever-increasing age and fragility of the nation’s infrastructure. As a result, over the course of just three years, it is estimated that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will deliver the equivalent amount of assistance that the agency distributed in the previous forty years combined, primarily in response to infrastructure damage. Moreover, in response to COVID-19, Congress has already appropriated nearly $3 trillion in emergency funding to help state, local, tribal, territorial governments, and private industry recover unforeseen costs associated with the pandemic response and is considering more. While significant federal funding has been made available in response to these events, many state and local officials do not know how to manage these funds in a results-driven way to minimize future disaster risk and losses.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), since 2017, natural disasters alone have accounted for nearly $500 billion in damage and losses.
Emergency management serves as a leading force behind reducing vulnerability to hazards and enhancing the resilience of communities following disaster. By design, FEMA’s guiding doctrine, the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Stafford Act), was to be discretionary, flexible, and scalable, so the federal government could assist state and local governments in need after disaster. While the overarching intent of the Stafford Act holds true, FEMA and Congress continuously place greater controls on and oversight of disaster recovery programs. Moreover, this approach fails to truly address the complexities of federal disaster management or encourage communities to use the disaster recovery process as an opportunity to invest in their future. While some changes have been necessary to ensure accountability and fiscal stewardship, the cumulative effect has been to decrease the Stafford Act’s flexibility, leading to increasingly burdensome policies associated with its use.
Over the past two decades, the emergency management field has been tested by disasters that have inflicted incredible damage upon a growing population and have exacerbated housing and infrastructure needs.
To streamline the community recovery process and enhance federal grant effectiveness, a single federal grants management platform should be designed to oversee the entirety of the disaster recovery process. Consistently, competing systems are built at the federal, state, and local level to manage disaster recovery grants, grant applications processes, and to assist in case management; however, without system integration, recovery processes remain fragmented, confusing, and inefficient. Recognizing the expense of this proposal, the significant time it would take, and the challenges associated with federal information technology management and procurement, a first step would be encouraging the use of a standard grants management system across the federal government. The goal should be to have one system, managed by FEMA, to facilitate the disaster recovery process and tie federal funding streams together. This will eventually enhance efficiency and proactively manage the risks of applicants duplicating benefits or expending federal funds in an errant manner. This will also help recovering communities prioritize resilience as they would be able to integrate pre- and post-disaster mitigation efforts further ensuring federal funds are spent in a prudent manner.
When FEMA evaluates a community’s need for a major disaster declaration, an indicator is uninsured losses. Once a major disaster is declared, repeatedly FEMA’s largest recovery line item is the repair and reconstruction of uninsured public facilities and contents. This federal funding typically comes with a 25 percent state cost-share, which is typically less than the cost of an insurance premium would be. As a result, many communities are either underinsured or do not insure their public buildings at all. In fact, this is a long-standing concern, as a 1982 Government Accountability Office report found that FEMA reimbursing state and local governments for the “repair and reconstruction of uninsured public buildings is inconsistent with the intent of supplemental assistance.”
FEMA should continue to fund uninsurable infrastructure and associated losses – particularly those driven by the impacts of climate risk and variability – the direct disincentive for communities to protect their own assets and their community’s resilience needs to be addressed.
Furthermore, since federal disaster assistance is intended to be supplemental in nature, grantees should be incentivized for proactively managing the known disaster risks of their communities. One way this can be achieved is for FEMA to consider lowering the FEMA Public Assistance program cost-share requirements for states who financially protect their assets and adopt stringent building codes. While the federal government would pay more of the state’s recovery share, federal disaster costs would eventually be reduced because properly insured and mitigated structures better withstand hazardous impacts.
Emergency managers must begin to plan for events beyond the Stafford Act as our nation is inadequately prepared for non-Stafford Act disasters. In a post-Coronavirus world, we must critically analyze our response approach to cyber security incidents, infrastructure failures (intentional or unintentional), and other public health crises, such as the opioid epidemic or homelessness. We need to face reality; these types of events are no longer outliers and are only going to become more common in the face of the evolving risk and aging infrastructure in our communities.
Given the pace and severity of recent disasters, some jurisdictions find themselves caught in a cycle of responding to a new disaster before fully recovering from a previous one. As we enter the height of the Atlantic Hurricane Season, we could see a co-response mission entangled with COVID-19 sooner than anyone would hope. While there are many disaster response and recovery reforms that should be considered, beginning by streamlining the disaster recovery process and identifying ways to encourage resilient rebuilding as we seek to establish the “new normal,” will enable the future success and strength of state and local communities across America.
While it is hard to predict when disaster will strike, it is possible to prepare and invest in resiliency to decrease future vulnerabilities and improve long-term recovery outcomes.
Top Stories this Month
The COVID-19 Pandemic…
The U.S. is currently leading the rest of the world, both in the current official count of COVID-19 cases and reported COVID-19-related deaths; the country reported 4,485,454 cases and 151,674 deaths. Throughout the U.S., new hot spots continue to develop and some states have started to increase mandated precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The U.S. continues to see a record breaking Hurricane Season…
There have now been nine tropical storms/hurricanes in this Atlantic Hurricane Season, with five of these storms occurring this month. Islands in the Pacific Ocean experienced a Hurricane in the Pacific Ocean, Hurricane Douglas. Hurricane Douglas made history by moving closer to Oahu in Hawaii than any other hurricane on record.