Overturned cars and damaged homes remain a day after a tornado touched down outside New Orleans in February. (MAX BECHERER/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The tornado hit the suburbs east of New Orleans at lunchtime on a mild Tuesday in February.

The twister spun across midcentury ranch houses still bearing spray-painted symbols that search-and-rescue squads left after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. At its calmest, the tornado tugged at asphalt shingles. At its most vicious, it flipped cars and snatched entire roofs and walls.

Winds of roughly 150 mph hopped over Chef Menteur Highway, and by the time the tornado fizzled out over Lake Borgne, it had caused millions of dollars in damage. Together with a cluster of other windstorms, it became the seventh presidentially declared major disaster of 2017.

States have come to rely on these declarations, and since the 1980s the federal government has been on the hook for the majority of recovery costs when a disaster is declared.

But as the country faces an increasing number of billion-dollar disasters, federal officials are considering scaling back that spending to save taxpayer money and encourage states to prepare for disasters with their own resources.

And that has some local officials worried, fearing that other programs and services would suffer, said Bryan Koon, Florida’s emergency management director. Areas hit with major damage “would be miserable places to live, and if you have a large enough disaster, they would be destroyed.”

The proposed pullback, along with the threat of more-frequent and more-intense natural disasters linked to climate change, is forcing cities and states to change the way they prepare for and recover from events such as tornadoes, forest fires, floods and hurricanes.

Preparing now for a billion-dollar storm that may be decades away can be a hard sell for officials who also have to come up with money for schools, roads and other essentials.

“Some states that have a rainy-day fund . . . for them, it might be easy,” Koon said. “For most legislatures, [the money] is not going to magically appear.”

Nobody knows how much states spend on disasters before and after they hit, but a study last year by the Government Accountability Office found that 17 federal agencies spent at least $277.6 billion on disasters between 2005 and 2014.

Counting on federal funds

Generally, states qualify for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s public assistance program — which provides money to replace and repair infrastructure — if they sustain damage that exceeds a certain dollar threshold, now set at $1.43 per state resident.

Critics say that the rate is too low and that some declarations are issued when the damage is relatively minor.

The federal government did not begin to set money aside to support disaster-stricken states until 1950. By 1953, what started as a $5 million allocation had grown to $52 million.

Now, the federal government is on the hook for at least three-quarters of the recovery costs of presidentially declared major disasters, giving states little incentive to set aside their own money to pay for them.

Like most cities, Baton Rouge — where thousands of residents found themselves underwater last August after two feet of rain doused the area — sets aside no funds to recover from a major disaster.

“We have to use existing staff and those folks who already had 40-hour-a-week jobs,” said Rowdy Gaudet, an assistant chief administrative officer for the city.

The flooding was so expansive and destructive that FEMA is paying 90 percent of the public safety and infrastructure rebuilding costs in Baton Rouge and surrounding localities.

So far, FEMA has approved $360 million in recovery costs, and the state is picking up the remaining 10 percent, using congressionally allocated Community Development Block Grant funds.

Typically, block grant money would go directly to homeowners, but in Baton Rouge it is being redirected because the public infrastructure need is so significant, Gaudet said.

“They’re taking resources that could go toward homeowners to help out local governments,” Gaudet said. “Because the reality is some local governments would not be able to meet that 10 percent threshold.”

States in the game

The federal money that Baton Rouge relied on may not always be around.

President Trump has taken aim at disaster funding, proposing a budget that cuts FEMA by 11 percent and targets emergency preparedness grants to state and local governments.

FEMA has twice asked for public comments on a proposal that would set varying rates for states based on their risk and what they have done to prepare for disasters.

Proponents of that plan say it would encourage states to save money and design more-resilient communities. (The Pew Charitable Trusts, which funds Stateline, has expressed support for the idea.)

“It would relieve taxpayers in non-disaster states from continually subsidizing taxpayers elsewhere,” Diane Katz, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, wrote in her comments to FEMA.

New York, Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi and Texas received the most federal disaster assistance between 1999 and 2015, averaging a $623.2 million a year. Idaho and Wyoming received, on average, only $687,985 and $763,162 in relief during that time.

But some jurisdictions say the deductible is unfair to disaster-prone states with small budgets.

For example, the FEMA proposal would require Louisiana to meet a $73.9 million deductible by fortifying communities and setting aside money for recovery spending, even though the state is much smaller than others, like Texas, with similar proposed deductibles.

A warming planet

Pat Forbes, executive director of the state division of administration in Louisiana, which collected $16.6 billion in federal disaster assistance between 1999 and 2015, said disasters are unpredictable and could hit any place at any time.

“When the disaster, especially one as catastrophic as [last year’s Baton Rouge floods,] happens in your community, you can’t recover without outside help,” Forbes said.

Although scientists don’t know exactly how climate change will affect particular disasters, a warmer planet will mean changes in weather events, said Ken Kunkel of the North Carolina Institute for Climate Studies.

Rising sea levels will lead to more coastal flooding. Warmer oceans probably will cause more heavy rain events. And hotter temperatures and depleted soil moisture could lead to wildfires that are more intense.

“We have adapted . . . to a certain kind of world,” Kunkel said. “We’re not going to have exactly that kind of world in the future.”

Experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say they believe that in 2015, wildfires in Alaska, a drought in Washington state and a “sunny day flood” in the Miami region all were related to rising global temperatures.

Places that weren’t built to withstand major disasters will probably have to grapple with them down the road, said Quinn Dauer, an assistant professor at Indiana University Southeast who studies natural and technological disasters.

“Really what makes a disaster is humans engaging in an environment in a way that’s going to increase their vulnerability to one of these physical forces,” Dauer said.


Stateline is an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.