R. David Paulison was FEMA administrator from 2005 to 2009.
Three years ago, Hurricane Sandy struck the United States, causing catastrophic losses up and down the East Coast. With families still struggling to get back on their feet, I’m shocked to report that — after all this time — billions of dollars in Sandy relief aid has yet to be spent.
To be exact, $30.06 billion of the $47.9 billion set aside for relief remains in the coffers of two federal agencies whose primary missions have nothing to do with responding to disasters — the Transportation Department and Department of Housing and Urban Development. This fact alone should cause all of us to stop and question our current approach to disaster recovery.
I’ve spent my 35-year career in emergency management responding to natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy. In 1992, I oversaw recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Andrew as fire chief of the Miami-Dade Fire and Rescue Department. In 2005, I was appointed by President George W. Bush to oversee Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts as administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Not only do I hold a deeply personal appreciation for just how destructive these storms can be, but I’ve also witnessed first hand the scale of damage they can inflict on families and communities when proper precautions aren’t taken.
Looking back on the valuable lessons I’ve learned throughout my career, the one that stands out is the importance of preparing for and investing in the future. In my line of work, preparation is not an abstract principle. It can determine whether a family’s home remains standing or lies in ruin after a disaster. And after the widespread destruction Sandy caused, it is clear to me that our country has yet to fully grasp this lesson.
An honest assessment of the federal disaster preparedness system reveals deep and systemic problems that can only be addressed through major reform. In August, I wrote a New Orleans’s Times-Picayune op-ed outlining a framework for a new national mitigation investment strategy that would address many of these problems. In October, the BuildStrong Coalition — with whom I work closely as a senior adviser — released the full details of this plan at sandy.buildstrongamerica.com, giving me a new opportunity to speak out about the dire need for reform.
There is simply no question that our country needs to change how we plan for and respond to natural disasters. This report reveals the federal government’s overemphasis on post-disaster spending, despite overwhelming evidence that every $1 invested in preparation saves $3 to $4 in future costs. For example, between 2011 and 2014, FEMA spent 14 times more on its post-disaster Hazard Mitigation Grant Program than it did on its Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program. The reforms I propose would adjust this ratio by investing $500 million of unspent Hurricane Sandy disaster funding to the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program. Doing so would mean using this money as Congress intended: to fund important programs that would strengthen our communities, save lives and reduce damage.
Another shortcoming addressed in the report is the lack of attention given to mitigation for homeowners. Currently, the majority of federal mitigation programs focus on fortifying public buildings and infrastructure such as roads, bridges, levees, dams and power grids. While these are important, they are only part of the picture. Single- and multi-family homes are a major driver of disaster losses, and our strategy would provide incentives — not mandates — for states, communities, builders and homeowners to better protect their property.
In addition to enhancing FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program, our investment strategy creates incentives for states to adopt and enforce strong statewide building codes, provides tax credits for builders and homeowners who use cutting-edge techniques when constructing homes, and establishes a FEMA pilot program that would provide grants to states and localities to help defray enforcement costs for qualified building codes. Taken as a whole, these reforms would protect Americans in the place they should feel safest — their homes — while saving tax dollars.
The investment costs of these programs can be paid for by repurposing less than 5 percent of the $30 billion still sitting at DOT and HUD three years after Sandy. By reinvesting these dollars in a smart and strategic fashion, we can break the cycle of “rebuild and repair” and ensure that future generations are better prepared for the next disaster.