Why Can't FEMA Get Disaster Repair Right?

As the US continues to be ravaged by storms, FEMA pours billions into an ineffective cycle of repair.

Last year’s hurricane season is thought to have been the costliest on record. Researchers have estimated that the destruction has cost the government a staggering $306.2 billion dollars. This year’s hurricane season has also been extremely costly. As of October 7th, 2018, the cost of the damage done by Hurricane Florence has reached 11 digits. After receiving federal funds from FEMA, local officials have to decide what to do with the money. Most often, they put it into rebuilding the same structures that were damaged or destroyed in the storm. However, scientists and disaster recovery experts strongly agree that the locations in which disasters strike are not random. Instead, they are patently predictable. Because of this, experts have urged communities in high-risk areas not to rebuild in the same areas that have been proven to be unsafe. Nevertheless, the (frequently incentivized) cycle of rebuilding in at-risk areas reigns supreme. All this begs the question of whether or not it would take federally-imposed regulations to properly express the realities of climate change to those considering rebuilding in disaster-prone areas. However, the current administration has already answered this question for us and is ‘going in a different direction.’

During the summer of last year, President Trump overruled an Obama-era executive order that imposed stronger environmental rules on infrastructure. The now-defunct order mandated that climate science had to be considered in the design of any federally funded project. For instance, damaged buildings in flood-prone areas could only be rebuilt if mandatory elevation codes were followed. These policies were put in place to better protect the people of the United States as well as the federal funding dedicated to post-disaster rebuilding. Without a federal mandate of this nature, it is clear that FEMA will continue to lead the United States (and its territories) through a defective cycle in which the same infrastructure will be rebuilt and destroyed over and over again.

 “You can’t continue this with the pace and intensity of events we’ve seen today… Somebody has got to break the cycle of damage, repair, damage, repair.” -- James Lee Witt, former director of FEMA.

Trump’s rollback, alongside FEMA’s new Strategic Plan  (a plan that suddenly has no mention of climate change or sea-level rise), ought to be considered together when discussing the current state of emergency management and disaster repair in this country. Spending money on rebuilding infrastructure in the same unsafe locations in which they were destroyed is arguably a waste of federal funds. And coming from an administration that is quite obviously trying to discredit climate change, none of this is surprising.

Oliver SperansComment