A national debt ceiling? How about a ceiling on disaster losses?

Congress, like most of the rest of us, has returned to work after the Labor Day weekend. The news headlines accompanying their return have largely centered on the work of the twelve members of Congress tasked over the next few months with finding a trillion dollars or so of budget cuts – part of the settlement reached after the summer’s debates on the national debt ceiling. But another challenge, emerging in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, the wildfires raging in Texas, and other natural disasters in 2011, is also getting coverage.

The story? Congress is divided over how to get more money – and how much more money – into FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund.

There’s no question more money is needed. Folks along the Eastern seaboard and up into Vermont are the most recent victims. But families and communities all across America are struggling to put their lives back together after wrenching loss from what sometimes seems like an unending series of tragedies this year. And empathy and a helping hand are supposed to distinguish the American spirit, right?

But how much money? And for whom? And should the federal disaster relief be off-budget (as has been the American practice for many years), or should the funding be accompanied by offsets – corresponding cuts somewhere else in the federal budget – as several Republicans have been demanding? Rosalind Helderman, writing in the Washington Post, and others have been covering this story. You can read her article here.

As usual, the basic issue is clouded, almost completely obscured, by heated political rhetoric. Democrats have been quick to seize on the issue as showing that Republicans are heartless. Republicans have responded by saying that coping with tragedy doesn’t mean giving up on fiscal responsibility.

If we set aside our natural inclination to choose sides, we realize there’s merit in both points of view. Federal funding goes to support a wide range of important public benefits – medical research, weather forecasts, support for aviation and surface transportation, national defense, and much more. Why should that important work come to a stop as we reach out to help those in need? Don’t we need, and shouldn’t we be able to afford, both? And does it really make sense to find these one-time relief funds by cannibalizing the base FEMA budget instead of seeking some other source, especially when it seems that disasters are increasingly a fundamental aspect of the American experience? Surely that shouldn’t be the source of the offsets. On the other hand, statistics compiled over the last half century by Munich Reinsurance and others show that disaster losses are rising rapidly, doubling in inflation adjusted terms every decade or so. Fact is, these losses are rising more rapidly than the world’s GDP. Here in the United States, losses are erratic month-to-month and year-to-year but average something like $1B a week. That can’t be sustained. Something has to give. And if those numbers aren’t going to budge, then we should indeed build those costs into our regular federal budget.

Fact is, there’s a better way.

Existing policies actually contain the seeds of an idea that could help a lot, especially if we gave it a little more visibility and primacy. That conceptual kernel is buried in the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, PL 100-707, first enacted in 1988, and its antecedent, the Disaster Relief Act of 1974. [You might choose a different starting point, earlier or later, but any of these will work.]

The Stafford Act recognizes that dangerous weather, earthquakes, and other hazards are never one-off events, but are rather recurring. Accordingly the Act provides that a small fraction – a fixed percentage – of disaster relief funds be made available to qualifying communities receiving disaster aid for the purposes of reducing their exposure to similar hazards in the future. Communities might use the funds to enact more stringent building codes, or relocate public facilities out of floodplains, or any of a number of other actions that would make their public health, their critical infrastructure and their communities and community economies more resilient the next time around.[1]

Google any or all of this, and you’ll find a lot of analysis of how these provisions of the Stafford Act are being used, or misused, how FEMA benefits and services are fine in principle but so bound up in red tape as to be burdensome as opposed to helpful for those in need, and more.  FEMA can no more escape the sturm und drang of political rhetoric than any other federal program. And there’s always room for improvement.

But suppose as individuals, communities, and a nation we took this aspect of disaster relief more seriously. Suppose in rebuilding our communities and homes we were to ask more questions: is this property located in the floodplain? What winds will my home or workplace or my kids’ school or my town’s hospital withstand? What’s the earthquake hazard here? Suppose we were to hold our contractors, and our business leaders and our community officials – and ourselves – more accountable for factoring future hazards into our planning and actions. Our prospects would surely improve.

Right now, when we rebuild as before, or when we look at the hit suffered by the community down the road, and then our own town or city, we say, with a sigh of resignation. This will happen again. Next time it’ll be our turn. It’s not a matter of “if” but “when.”

But suppose instead we picked some time step. Let’s say 25 years, just to give an idea. And suppose we said, we can’t reduce our risk to hazards overnight. But let’s aspire to reduce our community’s risk to hazards by 50% over the next 25 years. And by another 50% over the 25 years following that. And so on. Then, instead of “when,” or risk would be more limited…it would be a matter of “if.” We might not get through that first 25 years unscathed. But if we did, it would be even more likely we’d get through the second 25 years without a disaster. And so on.

Or total future risk of loss would be finite, and manageable  – not limitless, as it is today.

We could do this! Community by community. State by state. Across the country. And in the process we’d ease the pressure on that national debt ceiling at the same time.



[1] Interested? You can find more details in Title II of the Act.

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