Exposed to disaster

Posted: November 21, 2012

By Scott G. Knowles

As Hurricane Sandy blasted its way up the Atlantic Coast, a lively debate sprung up around the role of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Should it be shrunk and its functions returned to the states? Or did its good performance after the storm presage a return to bipartisan seriousness about national threats, exemplified by President Obama and Chris Christie's much-touted tour of the ravaged Jersey Shore?

Unfortunately, these questions elicited only careful sound bites from the candidates in the days before the election. Now that the election is behind us, we should seize the moment to discuss the real lesson of Hurricane Sandy: that we are a nation dangerously and needlessly exposed to disaster.

With coastal properties washed out to sea, railroad tracks and runways underwater, millions without power, and the nation's largest mass-transit system crippled by flooding, Sandy revealed obvious and predictable shortcomings in our ability to protect ourselves from disasters. It's a tale of deferred maintenance, poorly enforced (or nonexistent) development policies, and unwillingness to pay a little up front to avoid a lot of misery later.

Since 2001, we have lost more than $400 billion to weather-related disasters alone. That does not include the cost of lost work time or the incalculable psychological impact on communities as they struggle to recover. From New Orleans to San Diego County, Joplin to Manhattan, it's time to tally these costs and take them seriously.

In the 1990s, when FEMA finally broke free of Cold War civil defense, it made the first real attempts to develop a national strategy around what emergency managers call hazard mitigation - that is, the science of assessing risks and protecting communities against disasters. By the late '90s, FEMA had developed Project Impact, which encouraged cities and towns to get citizens, businesses, and government to work together toward hazard mitigation. With plenty of evidence of the need for such action - Hurricane Andrew, the Northridge earthquake, the Mississippi River floods - and with the country at peace, we seemed to be on the cusp of a hazard mitigation revolution.

Sept. 11 changed the conversation, though, leading to a complete reorganization of FEMA and a reinterpretation of hazard mitigation to mean fighting terrorism. It was hard to sustain a conversation about natural hazards in this context, and the economic crisis made it even harder.

Today, the lesson of Sandy is the same as that of Irene and Katrina: We have entered an era in which big storms are going to be a constant, and we have to stop putting ourselves in harm's way.

The good news is that we already know a lot about hazard mitigation. Here's what we can do right now:

Hold hearings. The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, ideally in conjunction with the House Committee on Homeland Security, should hear testimony from citizens, experts, and business on what's needed to modernize our national approach to hazard mitigation. A report could outline a strategy for President Obama to act on in his second term.

Form mitigation councils. In every town, county, and state, these councils should bring together citizens, the private sector, and officials to talk about what's needed to lessen exposure to disasters.

Revamp reactive strategies. Most of FEMA's budget is for disaster relief, with a tiny portion reserved for hazard mitigation. That should change with an investment in mitigation grants to localities. There should also be greater integration with other federal agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The science on rising sea levels, floodplain mapping, and more should inform mitigation plans.

Use market forces. Homeowners should be encouraged to make modifications that reduce vulnerability to flooding and other disasters. Insurers can reward such efforts through reduced premiums. Realistic coverage should be mandatory for properties in risky terrain.

Deal with climate change. The facts are in, and it's real. That means more wildfires, droughts, flooding, and sea-level rise. It's time to tend to the most pressing infrastructure needs. This happens to be economically beneficial, too: Dollars spent on hazard mitigation and infrastructure are economic multipliers, creating jobs, making property more valuable, and heading off disaster relief.

Disaster relief efforts like those unfolding in the Northeast demonstrate our humanity. Hazard mitigation demonstrates our pragmatism, and it could demonstrate our genius for innovation.


Scott G. Knowles is an associate professor in the history and politics department at Drexel University. He can be reached at sgk23@drexel.edu.

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