Congressman Scott Peters

Representing the 52nd District of California

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It's time to make smart changes to federal disaster response protocol

Apr 9, 2019
Op-Eds

As floodwaters in Nebraska, Missouri, and Iowa recede, the cleanup is just beginning. In our home states, fires in California and hurricanes in North Carolina took the lives of loved ones and neighbors, caused irreparable damage to communities and businesses, and cost the federal government hundreds of billions of dollars.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), there were more than 2,300 federally declared disasters since 2000. More than 600 disasters were declared since we both came to Congress in 2013.

The cost of these disasters is rising. In 2017, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria accounted for three out of the five most expensive hurricanes on record in the United States and caused a combined $265 billion in damage. That same year, the cost of fighting wildfires topped $2 billion, breaking records in terms of acres burned, dollars spent, and the length of the fires.

Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive total or record of this spending. The lack of available data and coordination between federal, state and community resources exacerbates lagging recovery efforts.

We cannot wait for the next big natural disaster to hit before we act. That’s why we introduced three bills that make smart changes to federal disaster response protocol and determine how much disasters cost taxpayers.

Research shows that mitigation investments reduce costs for disaster response and recovery: Taxpayers save an average of $6 for every $1 the federal government spends. However, federal mitigation investments are made after a disaster occurs, and there is no data publicly available on funding for these programs. 

First, we need to know what overlapping efforts already exist in agencies that respond to disasters and what emerging technology, like drones, could be used to better direct our response to each disaster. The Federal Disaster Assistance Coordination Act reports what damage assessments are complete and encourages agencies to minimize their overlap. This report would be provided to Congress and made public.

Second, our country needs to prioritize fiscal responsibility and transparency in disaster spending. We don’t know if we are spending taxpayer dollars wisely, if we don’t know how much we’re spending. The Disclosing Aid Spent to Ensure Relief (DISASTER) Act would require the Office of Management of Budget (OMB) to publish an annual total of disaster-related assistance categorized by disaster type, location, and purpose.

Finally, compiled disaster-related data should be published in a machine-readable format and be available in one place. The Post-Disaster Assistance Online Accountability Act requires agencies to report their disaster spending online at USAspending.gov and include the status of funding for each project.

We know our partnership might be unusual, but we both came to Congress to work on our nation’s most pressing issues. We hope to inspire more unlikely partnerships.

With painful memories from recent disasters—and Americans still recovering in the Midwest–it is more important than ever that we ensure communities are fully prepared before the next disaster strikes.