Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long wants to revamp the way federal disaster funds are distributed, putting a greater emphasis on building more-resilient structures and communities before disasters strike, Long told a House panel reviewing federal response to the recent slate of disasters.
"We have a long way to go to truly build a resilient nation," Long told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Nov. 2. Long's comments were welcomed by Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who told Long that he and ranking member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) both want to see similar changes to the agency and the way disaster relief funds are used. Shuster said a recent study found that every $1 spent on disaster mitigation saves $7 in disaster relief. Previous studies have shown a 1-to-4 correlation.
DeFazio said Long had a "lot of great ideas" but pointed out that the president's proposed budget would cut pre-disaster mitigation funds by 61%, or $47 million.
In his written testimony, Long noted that, between 1995 and 2004, the president approved $36.9 billion in FEMA assistance for 598 disasters. From 2005 to 2014, that number increased to 808 disasters at a cost of $106.9 billion. Long also pointed to pre-disaster mitigation funding that allowed Longmont, Colo., to improve the flow capacity of a creek in town. That $5.7-million program prevented losses of $22.5 million in a 2013 flood. He also said FEMA spent $205 million along Texas coasts to buy out or elevate 1,618 properties, avoiding Hurricane Harvey-related losses of more than $330 million. "When communities are impacted, they [FEMA] should ensure that they rebuild infrastructure better, tougher, and stronger to protect taxpayer investment and promote economic stability," he wrote.
Long said the first step to being able to build more-resilient communities is for Congress to change the Stafford Act, which dictates how federal money flows after a disaster. Under the Stafford Act, money is typically allocated only after a disaster strikes.
"To me, that's totally backwards," he told the committee. "We need to shift that to a pre-storm side. If it's all put on after that fact, you can't plan and strategize that funding."
Rep. Elizabeth H. Esty (D-Conn.) said the committee is in discussions about the creation of a working group to look at Stafford Act changes.
Others on the committee voiced frustration over the red tape associated with FEMA programs, citing the approximately 40 types of federal recovery assistance and mitigation.
"The federal government should not be an obstacle," said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), who testified to the committee as a representative of a Hurricane Harvey-devastated portion of Houston.
Long also said he would like to streamline federal assistance and fix the National Flood Insurance Program. "The bottom line is that it's too confusing, too cumbersome and continues to go into debt," Long said. The program, which is federally supported and provides insurance for homeowners in flood zones, expires on Dec. 8.