Cost of Federal Disaster Relief on Ruinous Rise

Cost of Federal Disaster Relief on Ruinous Rise

by Korey Clark

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 "resilience fund." 
 
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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