New CRS Report on the Disaster Relief Fund

New report from the Congressional Research Service is titled Disaster Relief Fund; Overview and Selected Issues. May 2014.

This report not only provides basic information about federal payment for disasters but also makes some proposals for better management of the disaster declaration process (see pp. 15-23). A good basic document to add to your personal library.

Thanks to Bill Cumming for the citation.

Once Again: Planning is Cheaper than Reacting

From, Protecting Cities From Floods Cheaper Than Postflood Damage Repairs.  Some excerpts from the article:

Researchers say that global warming is here to stay, and thus it is time to start making plans for dealing with the inevitable flooding which will occur as ocean levels rise as a result of warmer water and melting snow and ice. Approximately a billion people currently live in areas which are most at risk — low-lying coastal areas. It is not likely that towns and cities will be moved farther inland, so other measures need to be taken. The researchers say that flood prevention strategies are well established, for example, building levees, barrier islands, etc., so it is not difficult to draw up estimates for such schemes for individual areas.

Planning carries a lower cost than reacting. * * * Researches have concluded that it would be more cost effective for the economies of most coastal areas to employ flood prevention strategies rather than pay to clean up after flooding that occurs as a result of global warming. In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers discuss likely flooding scenarios in the future as global warming cause ocean levels to rise, and the costs of building structures to prevent flood damage.

A PNAS release quotes the researchers to say that global warming is here to stay, and thus it is time to start making plans for dealing with the inevitable flooding which will occur as ocean levels rise as a result of warmer water and melting snow and ice. They note that approximately a billion people currently live in areas that are likely to be at risk — low-lying coastal areas. Since it is not likely that towns and cities will be moved farther inland, other measures need to be taken. The researchers say that flood prevention strategies are well established, for example, building levees, barrier islands, etc., so it is not difficult to draw up estimates for such schemes for individual areas. What is difficult is convincing cities and towns to spend billions of dollars on preventing floods which will not occur for many years.

The full text of the article cited in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences can be found here.  Adapting to sea level rise cheaper than potential flooding costs.

Excellent New Article – in Environment Magazine

Since Michelin ranks restaurants with stars, the Diva has decided to award stars to documents re recovery. Here is the first one I would give 4 stars to:

Making America More Resilience toward Natural Disasters: A Call For Action, by Howard Kunreuther, Erwann Michel-Kerjan and Mark Pauly. From Environment Magazine, July/August 2013.  The title does not really do justice to the wide array of useful content here, so I suggest you download the full article and decide for yourself how you would categorize it.

Some excerpts:

Hurricane Sandy caused an estimated $65 billion in economic losses to residences, business owners, and infrastructure owners. It is the second most costly natural disaster in recent years in the United States, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but it is not an outlier; economic and insured losses from devastating natural catastrophes in the United States and worldwide are climbing.

According to Munich Re,2 real-dollar economic losses from natural catastrophes alone have increased from $528 billion (1981–1990), to $1,197 billion (1991–2000), to $1,23 billion (2001–2010). During the past 10 years, the losses were principally due to hurricanes and resulting storm surge occurring in 2004, 2005, and 2008. Figure 1 depicts the evolution of the direct economic losses and the insured portion from great natural disasters over the period 1980–2012.2

There is a wealth of useful information in this article, which makes it hard to summarize. It is thoughtful and clearly writtten. I consider this an essential document, one that I think will be a classic in time.

The Cost of Recovery as Compared with Investment in Resilience Measures

The Homeland Security Wire has written about a new report on the cost of recovery; their article is titled Bolstering pre-disaster resilience significantly reduces post-disaster recovery cost. Some excerpts from the article:

A new study finds that the federal government spends six times more on post-disaster disaster recovery efforts than on helping communities become more resilient to extreme weather which is predicted to become more intense and frequent. The study, citing Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates, calculates that for every $1 invested in “pre-disaster” mitigation, the cost of damage from extreme weather is reduced by $4.

Here is the direct link to the full study report (15 pp), titled Pound Foolish; Federal Community-Resilience Investments Swamped by Disaster Damages, done by the Center for American Progress.

Why Is Recovery So Hard To Do? – some observations and suggestions

Time after time, my blog postings document (and lament) the difficulties that various countries, states (prefectures, provinces), and localities are having working through an effective and efficient recovery. You name the country and the recent disaster event, and it will be on the list of places struggling with recovery.

First a brief account of why we need to do a better job with recovery, soon and worldwide. In short, the costs are too high to go unchecked.  It’s a global necessity that we need get better at recovering from disasters. See this article from HS Wired, March 15: 2012 economic losses from disasters set new record at $138 billion.  The lead paragraph says:

The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) reported that for the first time in history, the world has experienced three consecutive years in which annual economic losses have exceeded $100 billion. The losses are the result of an enormous increase in exposure of industrial assets and private property to extreme disaster events. brief account of why we need to do a better job with recovery:

In reviewing some of the recent examples of recovery from major disasters in 3 countries, as covered in this blog, some common concerns can be seen. After reading the Bosner article about Japan, and Ian McLean’s article about Christchurch, and some of my recent posts about the Hurricane Sandy (US), I the nations currently dealing with recovery from major to catastrophic events have several features in common.  I will note just two, because this is a topic that warrants a dissertation or two and not just a blog posting.

Pace: In the first two years of effort, generally recovery is proceeding more slowly than anyone imagined or hoped for.  Typically, neither public officials or citizens are satisfied Some of the problems are lack of knowledge and experience, some are public policy and management  deficiencies, and others have to do with political will.

Organizations– in all cases the organizations in place were not adequate, so new ones had to be created after the disaster occurred.

·       In Japan, they created a national Reconstruction Agency. See earlier postings on this blog for more details.

·       In the Christchurch area, they created a new regional organization – CERA.  Here is the link to the Recovery Strategy developed by CERA.

·      And in the U.S., HUD assumed responsibility at the federal level for recovery and created the Hurricane Sandy Recovery Task Force. The organization, functions, and responsibilities are still being sorted out at the present time.

My concern is that organizational problems, many of which could be anticipated, are preventing effective leadership during  the recovery period.  I think more help is needed from the public administration community on recovery organization and management matters. And I would like to see the executive agencies better utilize the existing talent – researchers, consultants, and practitioners. Several excellent mechanisms exist, such as the National Academy of Public Administration and the National Academy of Science. Think about using them!

And I would like to see more groups like the American Society for Public Administration, NEMA, and IAEM get more pro active and make recommendations to the executive agencies.

Presently,  the spotlight is on the new role of HUD and specifically on the new organization –  the Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. In my view, until the needs of the recovery process are dealt with. making progress with “resilience” is not realistic.

As always, comments and additions are welcome.


“How Gov’t Can Help the Economy Recovery from Sandy”

This article, How Government Can Help the Economy Recover From Sandy, raises some good points.  Even before FEMA was created (1979), some people have argued for a greater role for the Commerce Dept. and economic developement, but it never has happened.  Here is a new try, from Bloomberg News, Nov. 5.

If natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy are becoming more frequent, and their aftermaths more expensive, then the federal response needs to become more dynamic. Especially in fostering economic recovery, there’s more the U.S. government can do.

Some steps are small and obvious, yet still valuable. Barack Obama’s administration, to its credit, has made progress in cutting disaster-relief red tape, for example. Still, the patchwork of application requirements and eligibility criteria businesses must sort through to receive aid can be further streamlined and made more consistent across agencies.

It may also make sense to designate one federal agency as responsible for economic disaster relief. Whatever agency takes the lead (a report from the International Economic Development Council recommends the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration) should have a consistent, dedicated level of money on hand to respond to disasters. The IEDC suggests $100 million. This would free up cash quickly and help insulate economic disaster relief from political manipulation.

VERY USEFUL REPORT: The direct line to the IEDC report is here; it’s titled ” An Improved Federal Resonse to Post-Disaster Economic Recovery”   ,(Jan. 2010)

Recovery in Louisiana – still ongoing in year 6

Hurricane Rita

Image by Preston Kemp via Flickr

This article focuses on the slow drawdown of federal funds made available for recovery projects in Louisiana since the trio of hurricanes that hit in 2005. It highlights the financial management needed for the long, complicated recovery  process. Check out:  Another lesson learned from hurricanes Rita, Katrina; December 16, 2011.  A couple of excerpts:

While recovery from hurricanes Rita and Katrina from 2005 has been steady, the money allocated by the federal government to Louisiana has not been all spent. There is almost $2 billion still unspent from the $13.4 billion that was given to the state for rebuilding from those devastating natural disasters, according to the state Division of Administration.

That doesn’t mean it won’t be spent, since it will probably take the state years to fully recover.

While we can be grateful for the aide from the federal government, among the lessons from hurricanes Rita and Katrina is how to make the recovery programs from natural disasters more efficient, while making sure the money is spent honestly and for the purposes intended.

Federal Funding for Disasters

Getting ready for Hurricane Irene

Image by opie0429 via Flickr

This topic is damn serious, folks. Three takes on the problem:

Washington Post article titled: How will FEMA pay for Hurricane Irene?

With less than $1 billion currently available for federal disaster assistance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is temporarily suspending payments to rebuild roads, schools and other structures destroyed during spring tornadoes in Joplin, Mo. and southern states in order to pay for damage caused by Hurricane Irene.

FEMA is placing restrictions on paying for longer-term repair, rebuilding and mitigation projects from previous natural disasters in order to ensure the solvency of the federal disaster relief fund, which pays for emergency management costs and public rebuilding projects, the agency said. The decision will impact the spring tornadoes and disasters dating back several years.

The move “prioritizes the immediate, urgent needs of survivors and states when preparing for or responding to a disaster,” said FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen.

The White House is expected to declare similar disasters in other states as soon as today, further sapping money from the relief fund, which currently has about $900 million, below the $1 billion officials prefer to keep on hand.

The shortfall means the Obama administration will soon request supplemental funding from Congress, likely causing another fight over federal spending as a new “supercommittee” prepares to identify trillions of dollars in government spending cuts.
Already House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has said that any new money for FEMA will be offset by spending cuts elsewhere.

This issue is not new.  About two weeks ago I posted an article about the need to find an alternative means of funding disasters, other than via supplemental appropriations. See my posting on August 10  re the need for an alternative.  Once again that topic comes to the fore, now that Hurricane Irene is tearing up the east coast.  See this article titled Disaster Budget Becomes Political Issue, Aug. 28.

As Hurricane Irene slams into the East Coast, the federal disaster relief agency is dangerously low on cash. And politicians are already bickering about where to get new money.  It’s been a busy year for America’s disaster agency, and that may soon spell disaster for its budget.

So far in 2011, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has responded to  “major disasters” 65 times, among the highest in the agency’s history. The unprecedented demand has stretched the agency and its budget increasingly thin.  Craig Fugate, FEMA’s administrator, told White House reporters in May that the agency’s disaster relief fund was running low, then just above $1 billion. Without an infusion from Congress, he said, relief workers would only address immediate needs, like delivering food and water, instead of less immediate concerns like clearing felled trees and cleaning streets.

But just weeks before the worst of Hurricane Irene began to pelt Washington, D.C. and New York with heavy rain and wind, the agency’s disaster relief fund dropped below $1billion—to $792 million—nearly the lowest the fund has ever been only eight months into the year. As a result, FEMA officials on Saturday implemented what’s known as “immediate needs funding guidance,” which allows the agency to divert funds from long-term repair and rebuilding projects so it can focus on response and recovery efforts from the hurricane.

FEMA spokesperson … said that the agency had the funds to meet the immediate needs of disaster survivors. But, she said, “This strategy prioritizes the immediate, urgent needs of survivors and states when preparing for or responding to a disaster.”

From Forbes magazine on August 30th, this article.

Proposed Change in Federal Funding of Disasters

A colour version of previous map, ranking coun...
Image via Wikipedia

Article titled Debt Deal Reopens Debate on Climate Catastrophes appeared in the NY Times, August 10, 2011.

A provision tucked into the debt ceiling legislation is rekindling debate about the nation’s ability to pay for soaring catastrophe losses as coastal development and carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise.

The nation has struggled for years to find an effective way to help communities rebuild homes, businesses and infrastructure after natural disasters. Now, in a collision between downward federal spending and an upward presence of catastrophes, Congress is moving to pre-fund disasters.

The last-minute legislation approved by Congress last week to raise the debt ceiling creates a disaster fund that will carry billions of dollars for recovery in hard-hit areas. The fund is a money-saving effort proposed by the president’s bipartisan fiscal commission last December in its report “The Moment of Truth.”

The fund could reduce stress on the deficit by preventing the need for emergency supplemental appropriations made in the wake of a crisis. Those unplanned expenses are not included in the budget, so it amounts to new debt