Forecasters are expecting this year’s North Atlantic hurricane season to be roughly average, with about 14 named storms including six full-fledged hurricanes. Last week, the government finally dealt with the fallout from 2018, enacting a $19.1 billion relief package to help U.S. towns and cities still recovering from last year’s natural disasters. Even before that, 2018 had already drawn more emergency funding than any year since 2005, the costliest year on record.
The U.S. is more vulnerable to economic damage from natural disasters than any other nation, according to a recent analysis of global data. For reasons that include its size and location as well as local real-estate development policies, it ranks first among developed countries for the number of lives adversely affected by destructive events. With two long ocean coastlines and a propensity for tornadoes, Americans face more, and more expensive, disasters.
What to do about it is a question of mounting concern in disaster-prone communities. The federal government has increased its disaster funding dramatically in recent years, a function of both people living in risky places and, in many cases, risks themselves increasing because of climate change. This year’s allocation was delayed by disagreements between the White House and Capitol Hill over border issues and levels of support for Puerto Rico, which is still recovering from Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Since 1980, more than 241 billion-dollar disasters have cost the U.S. $1.6 trillion and almost half of those losses came during the four most expensive years: 2017, 2005, 2012 and 2018. While emergency relief bills deliver necessary aid, Congress’s reliance on them has become an obstacle to more lasting, structural preparedness, particularly in the last few years, said Josh Sawislak, a strategic advisor to Four Twenty Seven, a consultancy focused on climate economics.
Emergency allocations don’t follow normal budget rules, which demand that spending increases be offset by decreases elsewhere. That makes relief spending relatively easy for legislators, Sawislak said, compared with preventative investment in infrastructure and services, which would have to be budgeted through normal rules.
“We have a fundamental problem, which is you’re trying to come in after and clean up instead of preparing for the thing to happen,” he said.
The logistics of saving people from disasters starts long before said disaster and requires investment. Weather forecasts, warning systems and myriad other factors determine what happens during an emergency, said Samantha Montano, an assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Management at North Dakota State University. Every dollar spent on preparing for disasters prevents $6 in spending on relief and recovery, according to the National Institute of Building Sciences.
In the fall, the Disaster Recovery Reform Act directed the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) to help local governments plan storm evacuation routes, wildfire prevention and other practices that will move people to safety or prevent harm in the first place. The law also set up a mechanism that contributes an additional 6% of emergency disaster relief to FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program, which helps pay for preventative measures.
“It’s a start,” Sawislak said. “If we don’t want to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on recovering for disaster, we need to spend tens of billions [on resilience].”
In April, the National Wildlife Federation asked Congress to create a revolving loan fund that communities can draw on to invest in protective infrastructure. The NWF set $60 billion as a target for the fund—one-sixth the $350 billion in disaster damages paid for by the U.S. from 2008 to (pre-hurricane season) 2017. Money could go to protect, retrofit, upgrade or move existing infrastructure, or to relocating high-risk communities.
The U.S. faces challenges even more basic than ginning up resilience policy. Even quantifying the human toll of disasters is difficult, according to some emergency managers, particularly separating direct deaths from an event itself and indirect deaths that may come from subsequent but related disruptions. Documenting economic damage is trickier still, from initial on-the-ground responses, to physical damage, through reconstruction and ripple effects on traumatized survivors, Montano said.
“All of those numbers,” she said, “all of that data, that seem very, very basic, haven’t really been collected consistently over time and in a way that’s very useful.”
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