Last October's Superstorm Sandy was the costliest natural disaster in the
United States since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But the $62 billion states in
the storm's path reported in losses last year may be a harbinger of the future
of U.S. disaster spending.
According to a recent report from the Center for American Progress (CAP),
large, costly natural disasters are becoming more frequent in the United
States. Citing data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
(NOAA), the CAP report indicates the number of weather events inflicting at
least $1 billion in damage (adjusted for inflation) has risen from an average
of two per year to 10 per year over the past few decades.
Experts attribute that rise in part to population growth in high-risk areas and
the rising prices of homes and infrastructure. But the CAP report says most of
the recent natural disasters are also "symptomatic of the man-made climate
change resulting from massive amounts of carbon emissions and other pollutants
in the atmosphere" that have altered weather patterns. The report cites a
January draft assessment by the federal multiagency U.S. Global Change Research
program, which found that heat waves, heavy rains, and severe droughts have
become more frequent in much of the country over the past 50 years, as well as
the NOAA's determination that the United States experienced the second-highest
number of extreme weather events on record last year.
CAP estimates Congress spent at least $136 billion on disaster relief between
2011 and 2013, or about $400 per American household per year. But Congress
wasn't actually aware of that fact itself because no federal agency keeps a tab
on the full amount the federal government spends on disaster relief. The CAP
report's authors had to sift through three years' worth of appropriations bills
and disaster-relief supplementals to obtain their estimate.
"If we don't even know how much natural disasters are costing us, then
Congress is going to keep under-budgeting for disaster relief and
recovery," said Daniel J. Weiss, CAP's director of climate strategy, who
co-authored the report. "And lawmakers will end up doing deficit spending
to pay for it" - generally through emergency "supplemental"
bills that are passed separately from the regular budget process.
Even the partial accounting of how much the federal government is spending on
disaster relief has been enough to raise concerns among some members of
Congress. After the tornado that leveled neighborhoods and killed dozens in
Moore, Oklahoma last month, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) came under heavy fire
when he said aid to his constituents should be offset by cuts elsewhere in the
federal budget. He and other Republicans said the same thing after Sandy last
fall, delaying Congress' passage of a $60 billion relief bill and, in turn,
drawing a harsh public rebuke from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R). But in
that latter case Coburn and his GOP colleagues also opposed the inclusion of
funding for projects unrelated to the storm - such as $150 million for the
restoration of fisheries in Alaska, Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire - in
the Senate's initial Sandy relief proposal.
Coburn and like-minded Republicans evidently don't have the support of the
American people, however. Fifty-nine percent of the respondents to a Washington
Post/Pew Research Center poll said they didn't believe federal disaster relief
should be offset by budget cuts. That total included 52 percent of Republicans
and 57 percent of independents in addition to 69 percent of Democrats.
The CAP report recommended an alternative to offsets: investing in community
efforts to make buildings, roads and other infrastructure more resilient to
damage from extreme weather. As an example, the report cited the water drainage
regulations implemented in Tulsa, Oklahoma after a devastating flash flood in
1984, which have prevented flooding problems in all structures built in
accordance with those guidelines for the last 15 years. The report also points
out that FEMA has estimated "a dollar spent on [pre-disaster] mitigation
saves society an average of $4" in reduced damages.
CAP acknowledges that such efforts are expensive, especially for communities
and states still recovering from the Great Recession. But it has proposed that
President Obama appoint a blue-ribbon commission to identify a dedicated
revenue source, such as a tax on fossil fuel production or pollution, for a
Beyond that CAP recommended the Obama administration take action to limit
carbon pollution to 450 parts per million by 2050, which scientists say
"is essential to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change," and
require the Office of Management and Budget to conduct a complete, annual
accounting of all federal money spent on disaster-relief and recovery, without
which we will be "flying blind into a future with more costly
disaster-relief and recovery spending."
(CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS, NBCNEWS.COM, POLITICO, WASHINGTON POST,
ASSOCIATED PRESS, HUFFINGTON POST, PEW RESEARCH CENTER)
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