Disaster spending is notoriously difficult to track because, although the Federal Emergency Management Agency is the nation’s central disaster authority, almost every federal agency administers some level of disaster funding and disaster funds are often mixed with other programs. This all makes it difficult to hold agencies accountable.

That said, increased oversight, including audits by the GAO, improved record-keeping, making records publicly accessible and consistently measuring whether funded projects build resilience could help turn this around.

Get everyone on the same page

Reducing risk often requires the work of multiple federal agencies, but if agency actions are not coordinated, they can create complications, duplications, and waste.

For example, the US Army Corps of Engineers is building a seawall on New York’s Staten Island based on a calculation that the wall would protect homes—but some of those homes have since been removed by a FEMA and HUD project.

FEMA and HUD both fund property acquisitions to support flood risk reduction, but their funding programs work on different timelines, which can complicate local officials’ efforts.

Numerous other agencies are also involved in risk reduction and recovery. The Small Business Administration gives out loans. The Department of Education funds the reopening of schools. The Department of Transportation funds repairs for roads and bridges. The efforts of these agencies and more need to be coordinated to build resilient communities.

The new administration could order interagency task forces to define clear roles for each agency, establish methods for coordination, and create long-term plans for national resilience.

Change state and local government incentives

State and local governments might be more inclined to take steps to protect communities from disasters if they had to pay for a larger share of the aftermath.

When public buildings and infrastructure are damaged in a disaster, the federal government will pay for 75% of the recovery cost if the damage exceeds a certain threshold. The idea is for federal assistance to kick in when state and local governments are overwhelmed. However, that threshold is just US$1 million plus $1.55 per person in the state—an extremely low threshold.

FEMA is attempting to raise these thresholds, but the increase may not go far enough and is unlikely to be sufficient on its own.

In 2016, FEMA proposed a “disaster deductible” that would make states responsible for a deductible, between $1 million and $53 million, proportional to their hazard risk and resources before federal money would become available. States could earn credits to reduce their deductible by taking risk reduction measures like enforcing building codes or investing in insurance or emergency management programs—just like a safe driver discount for taking a safe driving course. Without leadership, the program lost momentum, but the new administration could improve disaster policy by revisiting this idea.

Local communities could also be encouraged to reduce their risks if Congress amended the National Flood Insurance Program. The program is bankrupt because its rates are too low to cover its costs and not enough people are participating.

Reforming this program will not be easy. If insurance rates rise, low-income residents won’t be able to afford insurance or may choose not to carry it at all, leaving them even more vulnerable to the next flood. Congress knows the program is struggling, which is why instead of reauthorizing it permanently, the program has been temporarily reauthorized 16 times over the last three years.

In essence, this kicks the problem down the road without solving it. Instead, the new administration could prioritize finding a long-term solution.

Put the focus on people

Disaster funding increases the gap between rich and poor because it seeks to make people “whole”—to replace what they had before the disaster. Those who had more get more help; those who had less get less. This, despite the fact that wealthy people are more likely to have assets they can draw on to recover, like a job with paid leave and savings to afford safe temporary housing.

Disaster response needs to take historic injustice into account.

A community that has faced disinvestment, redlining, or other forms of injustice often has infrastructure that is more vulnerable to hazards and needs additional support, not less. Ten percent of government-subsidized housing is in floodplains, which puts the residents at greater risk. Addressing underlying vulnerabilities will require coordination among numerous federal agencies and state and local governments.

Achieving effective disaster policy will not be simple. The work begins with Congress and the president making disaster reform a top priority. An executive order in the first 100 days that mandates coordination, reform, and consideration of climate change and social equity would be a good first step toward a safer, more resilient nation.

A.R. Siders, Assistant Professor, Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware; Allison Reilly, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Maryland, and Deb Niemeier, Clark Distinguished Chair and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Maryland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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