There are many lessons to learn from Harvey. I'll be discussing in a series of posts current disaster policies in the U.S., what it means to build resilient communities and the impact of disasters on environmental justice populations.
Communities that are better prepared for natural disasters have a greater opportunity to rebound quickly. This includes reducing the negative impacts on our economic, environmental and health systems post-storm. Most importantly, it’s about reducing death.
As we’re seeing now with Hurricane Harvey, citizens from around the country have mobilized to help rescue, clothe, feed and medically treat Texans. However, there is always a great outpouring of support from Americans after disasters. What measures were taken for hurricane preparedness by the state and cities along the Gulf Coast?
This was not the first time Texas was hit with a hurricane. Many residents in Houston were still living under tarps after Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Hurricane Rita in 2005. The devastation wrought by Harvey was not unexpected, nor was the damage done unpreventable. But we’re witnessing many systemic failures that has led to human catastrophe.
The history of federal disaster policy and legislative directives in the United States is largely reactive to large-scale disasters. (One example being the Post-Katrina Emergency Reform Act of 2006 which among many things established a registry for separated family members, provided transportation assistance for displaced residents and developed guidelines to accommodate families with disabilities.) Although there are relief, emergency and mitigation acts that provide an orderly means for the federal government to assist state and local governments, we often fall short in the context of long-term preparedness.
How the U.S. Government Budgets for Disasters
The federal government is a key driver in the cleanup and recovery effort after major storms, but Congress chooses to see disaster relief as emergency spending instead of proactive investments. It is more cost effective to prevent damage than to clean up damage, but that would require for national leaders to include protection measures in the federal budget. Therefore many of the programs President Trump praised in the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s relief efforts are on the chopping block. Why rack up the federal deficit when you can just pass an emergency spending bill?
The President of the United States has the authority to make a disaster declaration for small-scale and large-scale disasters under the Robert T. Stafford Emergency Relief and Disaster Assistance Act. Most of these disaster declarations are funded through the Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Every year, Congress appropriates billions of dollars in discretionary funding for disaster relief and emergencies primarily through Budget Control Act (BCA) cap adjustments. This means that Congress will increase discretionary spending for larger expenses with supplemental appropriations bills to provide additional funding that’s not subject to budgetary controls. There are three classifications of disaster and emergency spending:
We’re currently seeing the politics of what happens when we must rely on a relief package after a natural disaster. President Trump wants to tie Harvey aid to raising the debt ceiling, making it difficult for Congress to oppose the debt-limit bill. In the end, the House and Senate will pass a bill to provide much-needed aid for Texas, but is this the best way to go?
House Republicans were slated to cut more than $870 million from the DRF to build the border wall. It stems from the idea that much of the work from FEMA and NOAA and the EPA aren't vital services, thereby making staff, outreach programs and grants expendable.
But, natural disasters will always happen. Why not include money in the budget for state and local governments to develop comprehensive disaster planning?
The Case for Citizen Corps
FEMA’s Non-Disaster Grants primarily focuses on hazards, transit and counterterrorism. The agency’s Disaster Assistance provides funding for families and businesses whose property has been damaged and the losses aren’t covered by insurance. Neither of those focuses on community preparedness programs for natural disasters.
As we’ve witnessed on numerous occasions, there is minimal citizen engagement during emergency response. There aren’t mandatory drills for residents or appointed neighborhood leaders to act as liaisons with emergency management agencies. Many cities don’t always have an accounting for transportation needs of vulnerable populations, nor do they delegate responsibilities for medical personnel and veterinarians to report to specific locations. And businesses, schools and churches often take it upon themselves to open their doors.
We need to invest in programs such as Citizen Corps – a coalition of local organizations, businesses, city officials and professional first responders that receive training to assist in disaster recovery. This eliminates volunteers who are unprepared, increases safety and integrates an entire community to ensure disaster preparedness. The populace is better prepared to handle threats because of education, training and volunteerism.
Families shouldn’t be sitting ducks waiting to be rescued by the government. If we can enroll volunteers to work at the polls on election day, we can enroll citizens to lead communities to safety. We need to reevaluate how we prepare for storms to prevent damage and death, and not just look to funding for recovery after the storm.
Environmental advocate. Communications professional. Sports fan. I love television and press conferences.