By Christian Flinn
How can we do better?
On May 12th, the House Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management (EPE) of the Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee held a Hearing on “Controlling the Rising Cost of Federal Responses to Disaster.” The goal of the Hearing was to address, better understand, and discuss possible solutions to the rising costs of post-disaster response efforts. The Hearing began with opening remarks by Chairman Lou Barletta (R-PA) on how these costs have skyrocketed over time and how it must be a priority of the Federal government to encourage resilience efforts as opposed to dealing with disasters as they occur.
The list of witnesses included:
- Carlos Curbelo (R-FL)
- Joseph Nimich (Deputy Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency)
- Sallie Clark (President of the National Association of Counties and the International Association of Emergency Managers)
- Brian Koon (Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management and President of the National Emergency Management Association)
- Eric Nelson (Senior VP of Catastrophe Risk Management of the Build Strong Coaltiion)
- Kevin Mickey (Chair of the Multi-Hazard Mitigation Council of the National Institute of Building Sciences)
After Chairman Barletta’s opening remarks, the Hearing proceeded with witness opening statements. Rep. Curbelo was the first witness to speak and his general sentiment was that the Federal government had to focus on incentivizing mitigation and resilience practices rather than attempting to respond to disasters as they occur. He also discussed HR 5177, known as the National Mitigation Investment Act of 2016 – on which he has been collaborating with Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ). In a nutshell, the Act would strengthen the enforcement mechanisms associated with building codes and help incentivize mitigation and resilience planning at the community level. It would also require FEMA to report on the success of these programs and provide oversight.
The other witnesses echoed his sentiments about the need for stronger resilience and Mr. Mickey and Mr. Nelson added that ensuring the success of Federal efforts in that area would require increased inter-agency cooperation and coordination as well as more efficient streamlining of grant and recovery programs so as to ensure all available resources are utilized effectively by communities. Mr. Nelson added that a dollar increase in individual aid programs for mitigation reduces demand for insurance by around 6 dollars. Mr. Mickey went a step further, stating the need for public and private sector collaboration via government incentives – basically, he noted the private sector will only undertake mitigation investments when economically advantageous and it is up to the Federal government to ensure that is the case through incentives and grants. He added that Federal investments in different recovery programs should require investments in mitigation and resilience.
Following similar statements by the other witnesses, the Hearing moved into a question and answer period. Chairman Barletta opened by asking Mr. Nimmich how exactly the high cost of disasters correlates with population migration to coastal urban centers. Mr. Nimmich stated that the trend of migration to coastal urban centers has been increasing consistently over time and will likely continue to do so. Furthermore, the value of property has grown similarly. The best solution moving forward is to build housing and other facilities with that trend in mind and promote better upkeep and maintenance of infrastructure. The bottom line is to minimize the cost and effects of future disasters via early investments in resilience and mitigation. Mr. Nelson supported Mr. Nimmich’s claim by offering insurance data from expanding urban areas with poor building codes vs. those with more stringent ones – in areas with stronger codes insurance claims after disasters were much lower.
Rep. Sires took over the line of questioning at this point, asking Mr. Nimmich about the lack of internal and inter-agency program coordination within and between FEMA and other agencies. His main concern was: how can Congress help? Mr. Nimmich responded that part of the issue is logistical: recovery programs require a great deal of oversight and because different agencies resources are under separate jurisdictions this can complicate coordination. Furthermore, it was not until this year that the administration passed a standard requirement for mitigation and, as of now, only 12 states have adopted that standard. Mr. Mickey added that part of the most effective plan of action is to raise interest amongst non-federal stakeholders so as to ensure State-driven initiatives that encourage other states to do the same. He offered the example of Statefarm insurance’s expanded Impact Resistant Fortified Roof Program (now in 26 states). Essentially, the company worked with State regulators to ensure the expansion of best practices where roofs are concerned. Mr. Mickey added that uniting stakeholders so as to replicate best practices everywhere is key to successful mitigation efforts. What is more, mitigation and resilience initiatives should be viewed as a carrot, not a stick, on the part of local governments when it comes to introducing and enforcing said initiatives. Mr. Koon pointed out that incentive offers have improved in Federal legislation but, for whatever reason, these offers have not been taken advantage of to their full extent. He stressed the need to address that fact and ensure these programs have the maximum benefit intended.
At this point, Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA) asked Mr. Nimmich about FEMA’s guidances to help local governments implement preparedness plans and mitigation efforts. Central to his interests was the question: “do you see the efforts of the Corps of Engineers as successful at promoting mitigation?” After some deliberation, Mr. Nimmich said that based on the evidence of Corps projects, he believes so. Rep. Graves, a well-known critic of the Corps, then went in another direction, again calling for greater inter-agency cooperation in the operation of several mitigation-oriented funds and programs.
Rep. Sires interjected, here addressing Mr. Nimmich, stating the importance of building codes are to the expansion of Federal investment. Essentially, he hoped FEMA would take a more proactive role in post-disaster follow-up to supervise and ensure resilience-oriented recovery efforts. Mr. Nimmich claimed that FEMA had moved rapidly since Katrina to ensure claims are met, he also added that FEMA has a high success rate when it comes to identifying fraudulent or erroneous claims. He stated that while the process is long, it is constantly ongoing and FEMA is doing all it can to provide sufficient incentives for mitigation planning and strong building codes. Mr. Koon advised that streamlining existing programs is the best course of action, since many programs are effective but in need of better management. Stronger data analysis of the “true cost of disasters” (smaller scale destruction or complications) is also necessary as it will help clarify the “true returns” from mitigation investments.
Ms. Clark then answered a question from Chairman Barletta regarding local government initiatives. Basically, she said that local government is often eager to work with the Federal government and is constantly seeking ways to effectively and accurately provide information to Federal agencies. In this sense, it is helpful – and possibly even necessary – to sit down with local stakeholders that have been through recovery processes in order to analyze and share best practices. Mr. Mickey added that some states, like Indiana, have made great progress with regards to digital mapping and such programs must be taken into consideration for future efforts – as they can be quite effective at predicting weak spots and areas of need in the case of disasters.
This Hearing brought up several important questions related to how best to move forward with mitigation incentives. As it stands, most parties are in agreement that existing agencies and programs are sufficient in order to properly recover and prepare for disasters – what needs to change is planning and coordination at the upper levels. It would seem that moving forward, these considerations will take the spotlight as areas where Congress can help make a difference.
For more information, please contact Christian Flinn at Christian.Flinn@warwickconsultants.net.