June 26, 2018 at 5:00 am ET
The U.S. government spent a record amount recovering from disasters last year. Sixteen natural disasters — ranging from hurricanes and wildfires to floods and drought — cost Americans a whopping $306 billion. Congress is now moving to reduce that gigantic expense by improving preventive programs aimed at making structures in vulnerable communities more resilient.
Infrastructure experts agree that investing in smart, sustainable hazard-and-disaster mitigation efforts can prevent or minimize the damage caused by naturally occurring crises. By acting on pre-disaster resilience programs, Congress can help make communities stronger and safer in the long run.
The legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, which was passed by the House of Representatives and has been sent to the Senate, includes two provisions aimed at helping communities limit the impact of natural disasters before they happen. The House handily approved the provisions, which encourage implementation of cost-saving hazard-and-disaster mitigation efforts at the national, state and local levels.
The current Senate version of the FAA reauthorization bill doesn’t contain the same provisions, though lawmakers in the Senate are considering changes to the disaster assistance programs and can still add them before the bill completes its journey to President Donald Trump’s desk. In the alternative, they can pass a stand-alone bill that would go back to the House for consideration.
Rather than maintain the status quo that relies primarily on reactive measures after disasters strike, lawmakers can usher in an age of proactive, pre-disaster activities by adopting these provisions. These resilience programs have been proven to not only save lives and property but also to save taxpayers considerable amounts of money that now go into disaster responses.
According to a nonpartisan report commissioned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency — which oversees national disaster recovery, mitigation and preparedness — federally funded mitigation grant programs from 1993-2016 generated nearly $158 billion in taxpayer savings. In a study released this year, the National Institute of Building Sciences found that for every $1 spent on hazard mitigation, $6 is saved in avoided future disaster costs. These are huge potential savings that result from policies undertaken before disasters happen, not afterward.
Clearly, federal dollars have been well spent on mitigation efforts in the past. But what Congress chooses to do now with the FAA reauthorization bill will have a profound impact on the ability of state and local governments to take precautions in the future. More effort is warranted.
One of the House-passed measures — the Disaster Recovery Reform Act — would establish dedicated funding for pre-disaster hazard mitigation programs, as part of disaster aid. It would also encourage communities to focus more on preparing for disasters, including implementing better construction standards, like the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design green building standard, while allowing them to “build back better” using current codes and standards. In this regard, stories abound about highly energy-efficient buildings, with renewable energy and other technologies such as cisterns helping owners maintain safe building operations in a crisis, potentially providing shelter to others.
The second House-passed provision called the PREPARE Act would authorize an interagency council to recommend the best ways of planning and preparing for extreme weather incidents. The measure would also strengthen federal agencies’ pro-resilience efforts. Finally, the bill would provide state and local governments with the best information available and best practices to help them formulate emergency preparation plans tailored to their needs.
The federal government has relied for too long on the same reactive playbook for natural disasters. Emergency personnel do a terrific job coming to the aid of communities when they need a helping hand. But if the United States wants to provide maximum assistance, it must invest earlier and in programs that strengthen infrastructure before disasters happen. The Senate should add the House’s resilience-building measures to the FAA reauthorization bill or pass it separately. Everyone will be better off if it does so.
Taryn Holowka is senior vice president of marketing, communications and advocacy for the U.S. Green Building Council.
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