Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing entitled America’s Natural Disaster Preparedness: Are Federal Investments Paying Off?

Today I was one of four witnesses at a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing entitled America’s Natural Disaster Preparedness: Are Federal Investments Paying Off? What a privilege! I learned a lot from the thoughtful questions posed by the Senators, and the answers given by the other panelists. You will too. [One of the panelists was Bob Ryan, of WJLA-TV here in Washington, DC, and a former AMS President.] Here’s a link to a C-Span streaming video of the event.

Below is the text from the final draft of my oral remarks.

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Thank you, Mr. Chairman, Senators, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Today we grieve for those who suffered loss because of violent weather in recent weeks. We can never make them whole. But we can best honor their loss and suffering by working together to reduce risks of further tragedy in coming years. So thank you for convening this conversation on disaster preparedness, and for letting us take part.

Because of its size and its location, the United States bears a unique degree of risk from natural hazards. We suffer as many winter storms as Russia or China. As many hurricanes as China or Japan. Our coasts are exposed not just to storms but to earthquakes and tsunamis. Dust bowls and wildfire have shaped our history. And, 70 % of the world’s tornadoes, and some 90% of the truly damaging ones, occur on our soil.

In addition, because of our global reach, disasters a world away call for a U.S. response: earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, a tsunami in Japan, floods in Pakistan.

Our current disaster preparedness, though good, and though improving, remains far from ideal. Warnings are more accurate and timely, but too often are lost, or garbled, or misunderstood, in that “last mile,” where they struggle to reach those actually in harm’s way. Compromises in land use and building codes mean our homes aren’t always as safe as we might hope. 85% of the small businesses who close their doors as a result of disaster never reopen. The dollar amount of property loss and business disruption is growing faster than GDP. And virtually every disaster very quickly also becomes a public health emergency. We can do better, if we:

  • Maintain our essential warnings systems. That means funding for the day-to-day operations, and funding for modernization. It means funding continuity year-to-year. The biggest gap right now? We’re told some $800M in additional funding is needed for NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), in this fiscal year (FY2011), to avoid an unacceptable gap in satellite coverage beginning no later than 2017[1]. Such a gap will throwback our warning capability 20 years.

 

  • Bring to bear not just meteorology and engineering, but also social science. Pushing that warning message the last mile? Helping those in immediate danger to save themselves? Here’s where we need advice from communication scientists and sociologists. Another example: the title of this hearing asks the question: Are investments paying off? We think so, but we don’t know how much. Toward this end, more economic analysis of benefits and value would sure be useful.

 

  • Learn from experience. We do this in aviation. The National Transportation Safety Board plays a key role. Absent a similar agency to study natural disasters, we do the opposite of learn from experience; we “rebuild as before[2].” This condemns future generations to pain and suffering down the road.

 

  • Build public-private partnerships: To build America’s disaster preparedness requires that government and the private sector collaborate effectively at all levels: (1) NOAA with the aerospace firms who build satellites and ground systems; (2) NWS with the broadcasters and private firms who deliver weather warnings (this is actually working rather well)[3]; (3) at the local level to build community disaster resilience[4]; (4) bringing in insurers to provide incentives for better land use and building codes; and finally (5) with respect to private-sector role in hazard mitigation and disaster relief, as so well exemplified by organizations such as the Business Civic Leadership Council of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

 

  • Explore No-Adverse Impact Policies for flood[5] and other hazards[6], as propounded by the Association of State Floodplain Managers and the newly-formed Natural Hazard Mitigation Association.

 

  • Track progress/keep score. Over a decade ago, an NAS/NRC study recommended that the Department of Commerce maintain statistics on U.S. losses to natural hazards[7]. That proposal should be implemented. We give priority to what we measure.

 

Three concluding points.

First, let’s look to the U.S. Department of Commerce as a suitable agency home for these policy options.

Second, each of these measures can build international goodwill, and international markets for U.S. products and services.

And finally, we should not forget the impact of each of these measures on jobs – protecting the jobs Americans already hold by protecting their communities and homes in the face of natural hazards, and creating new jobs to serve those emerging international markets.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.


[1] See, e.g., http://www.aviationweek.com/aw/generic/story.jsp?id=news/asd/2011/04/07/07.xml&channel=space

[2] Eosco, Gina M., William H. Hooke, 2006: Coping With Hurricanes. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 87, 751–753.

[3] Fair Weather: Effective partnerships in weather and climate services NAS/NRC BASC (2003)

http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309087465

[4] Building Community Disaster Resilience through Private-Public Collaboration, NAS/NRC BESR (2010) http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13028

[5] As suggested by the Association of State Floodplain Managers: http://www.floods.org/index.asp?menuID=460&firstlevelmenuID=187&siteID=1

[6] Natural Hazard Mitigation Association: http://www.nhma.info/

[7] The Impacts of Natural Disasters: A framework for loss estimation. NAS/NRC CGER (1999) http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309063949&page=27

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