How much do disasters cost?

September 18, 2014

How much do disasters cost?

As seen in The Hill:

By: Reps. Scott Peters, Gerry Connolly, Paul Tonko, Steve Israel

Chances are an extreme weather event has impacted your life in the past three years. Floods and wildfires ravaged Colorado, wildfires continue to scorch California, mudslides wiped out towns in Washington, tornadoes rolled through Oklahoma and Alabama, and Superstorm Sandy inundated the East Coast, with no place harder hit than New York and New Jersey. Seven out of every ten Americans experienced some type of extreme weather event that yielded $1 billion or more in damages.  

Americans are seeing an uptick in the number of extreme weather events damaging our communities. We are also seeing an increase in their price tag. Globally, the amount of disaster-related assistance has quadrupled in the past three decades. With climate change, we know these disasters will grow in impact and in cost.

The cost is more than just the emergency relief packages Congress approves after major disasters. It goes beyond what the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides through its Disaster Relief Fund. Yet shockingly the Federal government provides no single estimate for how much we spend on disaster-related assistance each year. That is critical information that should be available to taxpayers and policymakers. That is why we are introducing the DISclosing Aid Spent To Ensure Relief (DISASTER) Act.  

According to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, less than half of the funds Congress provided for Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Wilma, Ike, and Gustav went to FEMA.  Instead, these funds were distributed across eleven different departments and three independent agencies/entities as well as to the federal judiciary.  That included funding for the Department of Education to help schools with enrolling displaced children and to assist with recruiting and retaining teaching staff in afflicted areas, and funding to the Department of Defense to help displaced military personnel and to repair military housing. 

Disaster relief continues well beyond when the disaster first strikes. Communities struggle to recover from these horrific events long after the headlines and news reports fade from our sight. More than nine years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005, communities along the Gulf Coast are still working to fully recover. On September 2, 2005, Congress passed its first off-budget, emergency bill to provide disaster-relief assistance to Katrina victims.  By January of 2010, eight relief bills in response to Katrina had been passed by Congress. 

Emergency relief bills do not, however, illustrate the full cost. As FEMA’s July 2014 Disaster Relief Fund Monthly Report shows, the Federal government is still providing assistance to Katrina-impacted communities. 

Hurricane Katrina demonstrates that recovery can be a long, complicated, and expensive process.  As neighbors, friends, and fellow Americans, we have a responsibility to ensure that impacted communities get back on their feet after a disaster strikes. But we also need to recognize the full costs of these natural disasters, so that as we assist communities to recover we rebuild in ways that will reduce their vulnerability to another tragedy and reduce our financial liability to open-ended expenditures.     Understanding the full cost of disasters will help Congress and the President create budgets that more accurately reflect the needs of our communities and help us avoid spending billions of dollars that we hadn’t planned on.  We hope Congress will join us and provide a clearer understanding of what it means to be struck by a disaster. 

Peters is the chairman and Connolly, Tonko and Israel are co-chairs of the Climate Task Force of the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition (SEEC), a group of 57 House members focused on promoting clean energy, protecting the environment, and addressing climate change.