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Please enjoy reading this recovery-focused November issue, and we look forward to seeing you next month!
The New York Times recently published an article that is rather critical of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) largest grant program – Public Assistance (PA). It argues that the PA program “is required by law to distribute billions in aid but exerts little control over how the money is spent.” Under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Stafford Act), the PA program is designed to repair damaged public facilities to their pre-disaster condition, plus cost-effective hazard mitigation measures. From the perspective of the Times, this means the federal government doles out money for repairs and improvements on sites that are increasingly vulnerable to the risks associated with climate change. Put simply, the Times appears to reject the very premise on which disaster recovery is based under the Stafford Act:
“Since Sandy, Congress has twice amended the law that authorizes federal disaster aid, the Stafford Act, to make it more financially attractive to use public assistance grants to relocate and to rebuild more responsibly. Mr. Trump signed a bill last week to provide more FEMA funding for projects designed to diminish future storm damage in vulnerable communities. None of those measures, however, fundamentally alters the balance of power between federal and local officials concerning those decisions.” [emphasis added]”
FEMA is well-aware of the need for reform. It is no secret that restoring damaged public facilities to the way they were pre-disaster may not always present the optimal return on investment of tax dollars – particularly in an age of increasingly severe and frequent natural hazards. After the 2017 hurricane season, FEMA published an After Action Report (AAR) detailing its own areas for improvement and how they hoped to work at bettering their response and recovery efforts. Honest accounts like this will help FEMA improve its programs. But there is a limit. FEMA is at the mercy of acts of Congress, meaning many of the fundamental balance of power issues criticized in this Times article can only be corrected through legislative action. FEMA has limited recourse.
Under Administrator Brock Long, FEMA emphasizes that disaster recovery is “federally funded, state managed and locally implemented.” We at Hagerty believe that FEMA’s 2017 hurricane season AAR sends a strong signal that FEMA wants to delegate responsibilities down to state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) governments, with a significantly smaller federal footprint for each disaster. It is important to consider that all levels of government play an important role in recovery and that locals are key even when infrastructure is vulnerable to repetitive damage. Local governments know their communities best and are well positioned to make strategic decisions about community recovery.
Our Vice President Garrett Ingoglia wrote recently that FEMA does have a rigorous review and approval process for recovery projects and that this process in fact can make it harder – not easier – for local leaders to dictate recovery. Furthermore, recent amendments to the Stafford Act by the 2018 Disaster Recovery Reform Act (DRRA) do in fact make it easier for locals to exercise judgment in how they restore damaged public facilities, including rebuilding in ways that differ significantly from pre-disaster conditions. This is an important nuance in FEMA recovery, and FEMA can use this to encourage locals to consider future vulnerability.
We at Hagerty hope that the recently-passed DRRA will be a positive step toward solving problems that both FEMA and critics have named. While the Act may take time to implement, and it does not altogether alter the fundamental balance of power as noted by the Times, we have written on the Hagerty blog that the DRRA is laudable in how it strengthens the Federal commitment to pre-disaster mitigation and makes it easier for locals to rebuild how they want post-disaster. Both of these features should provide locals more resources and incentives to protect vulnerable infrastructure and reduce disaster risk. Read more about specific reforms as outlined by Hagerty’s Deputy Director of Recovery Ari Renoni who believes that the DRRA will be “the greatest overhaul in disaster recovery since Hurricane Sandy.”
In the wake of the DRRA being signed into law, FEMA released the PA Management Costs (Interim) Policy, which may directly address the Times’ concerns but also contradict FEMA’s Strategic Plan. As Hagerty Recovery Manager Chris Thomas writes, this interim policy will actually “increase the administrative burden” on FEMA. Ultimately, it is an open question if our country wants the federal government to dictate sensitive local disaster recovery decisions. What FEMA can do today is leverage the programs as they are, including recent DRRA reforms, to fully fund hazard mitigation and relocation of vulnerable damaged public facilities. There is ample discretion in FEMA’s programs, which is a powerful tool that does not require an act of Congress to implement. For example, FEMA Regional Administrators can require damaged public facilities to relocate out of the floodplain, yet there are policy hurdles that must be cleared first. This question of power will need to be answered as FEMA undergoes reforms to become a more responsive organization and as we work to become a more resilient nation.