September 13, 2013 - From the September, 2013 issue

Congressman Earl Blumenauer Assesses Government's Short-Sighted Response to Natural Disasters and Climate Change

Over the past three decades, North America has seen a fivefold increase in weather-related natural disasters, with relief spending mirroring this exponential trend. As the population grows, the number of Americans residing in “at risk” areas along the coast, rivers, and in the “fire zone” also continues to rise. In the following TPR interview, Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer explains why our current federal policy on natural disaster recovery is both fiscally unsustainable and life threatening. He suggests the changes in zoning, infrastructure investment, insurance, and taxation that must occur on a national scale in order to ensure a more resilient America better prepared for the climate changes we will inevitably face. 


Earl Blumenauer

Earl,  you have been featured frequently in our newsletters addressing national climate change policy, critical infrastructure planning, and investment in ports, transport, and water. In this interview we ask that you share your views on natural disaster preparedness. In a recent article, “Flood, Rebuild, Repeat: Are We Ready for a Super Storm Sandy Every Other Year?” by Atlantic Cities’ Kate Sheppard, you are quoted at great length. What precisely is your critique of federal natural disaster relief?

In brief, the problem is that we don’t have a good national natural disaster preparedness policy. We have created a patchwork over time. We rely heavily on providing resources after the fact to help the people who have been tragically impacted, but there is too little guidance in terms of how we use those resources to make sure that we’re not putting people back in harm’s way, and that we’re not just opening the spigot in terms of an unlimited federal liability in the long term. Another part of the problem is we’re not learning from the experiences of the past.

It’s reported that the federal government spends billions of dollars on disasters after they happen but arguably pinches pennies when it comes to preparing for the same types of disasters. You highlighted New Orleans’ vulnerabilities before Katrina. What explains government's reluctance to fund investment in the resiliency of our infrastructure?

There are several things. First, it’s really hard to change these patterns of behavior. The lands that are the most flood-prone—coastal areas, riverside—are the most desirable, the most valuable. People can make a lot of money building, developing, and staying there. Making changes disrupts that and it pinches.

Second, part of the problem historically has been that so much of the disaster relief—I’ve heard estimates of $2 billion a week—comes in the form of emergency spending. It doesn’t come out of regular federal budgeting and doesn’t count against the limitations that are established each year with the budget parameters. So it’s almost “free money.” It doesn’t reduce other federal spending, so Congress and the administration do not have to make hard choices. At the same time, when we are investing in mitigation, in resiliency, in things that help make communities less disaster prone and that will unquestionably save three to five dollars or more for each dollar we spend, that comes out of the regular budget. It takes money away from defense, agriculture, and food inspection, and projects large and small.

The problem is that we really aren’t very forward thinking, that we really don’t want to directly confront the huge amount of wealth that is generated by coastal development. The fact is that when we’re budgeting for disaster relief, it’s relatively painless to throw money at people after the fact. But it’s not painless for the taxpayers. It all adds to the deficit.

What is the magnitude of the challenge. In addition to Sandy, it has been reported that there were ten other major storms over the last three years, and in 2011 the federal government declared a record 99 weather-related disasters from hurricanes to wildfires. The US averaged 56 such disasters per year between 2000 and 2010, and only 18 per year in the 1960s—obviously a dramatic increase. Are we as a nation prepared for the costs incurred from an increase in Sandy-like storms? 

We are not, and you’re right, this has been an exponential increase over the course of the last 50 years. Unfortunately all indications are that these costs are going to continue to increase dramatically. One reason is climate change. We are seeing accelerated climate effects: rising sea levels, more extreme weather events. The climate itself is going to create a huge increase in our long-term liability.

The second problem is that we have silly or nonexistent regulatory frameworks to help deal with this. It was stunning to me that seven Mississippi counties and four Louisiana parishes didn’t have building codes. We are also seeing more and more people move into the “flame zone,” the forested areas around our major metropolitan areas that are part of the wildland/urban interface. People want to experience nature, but they want urban-level fire protection. Fires that in years past would have just burned their way out, we now throw all our resources into because we’re saving people’s homes, and in some cases, their lives. Also, we are more likely to have wildfires with increased human activity in those areas. 

A lack of good planning and zoning to keep development away from hazardous areas that are wilderness and waterfront, coupled with a changing in climate, is a prescription for repeated disasters.

As we do this interview Earl, there’s a 6000-acre fire in Riverside California that is not under control. Fires of late have rampaged California almost every two years. How does Congress marry mitigation strategies with resiliency strategies to deal with the effects of climate change?

It seems to me that we should establish some basic rules. One is that the federal government should to use its powers to avoid putting people back in harm’s way. That way, with our disaster payments, we’re not just putting things back the way they were—you don’t qualify for full funding unless you harden the site, make it more disaster resistant, or are actually moving out of harm’s way. In some cases, a buy-out makes the most sense.

We ought to use federal resources to make sure that we’re not creating the problem or compounding the problem in terms of allowing investment that the federal government subsidizes. We’ve got a Costal Barrier Resources Act that helps in some areas, but it hasn’t been extended throughout the entire country to stop federal infrastructure investments in delicate and hazard-prone areas. Maybe it is time, in areas that are repeatedly flooded or burned, for the federal government to stop giving the mortgage interest tax deduction.

The federal government should lead by example. It’s ironic that we put the Los Alamos nuclear labs in an area that has not only been threatened by wildfires in recent years, but has historically burned repeatedly over the centuries. Yet the federal government made a massive investment there.

There is an array of these items that I think will make a difference. I personally think that there needs to be more responsibility for the individuals and for other levels of government. If it is such a great idea to have infrastructure in a portion of the Jersey Shore or South Florida, maybe we want to have the local governments and property owners pay an increasing share of maintaining that infrastructure for beaches that are washed away or roads that are damaged. There are approaches that are consistent with sound management and an ethic of self-reliance that we can send the right signals and gradually change behavior, saving the federal government a lot of money going forward. We can’t afford the trajectory we’re on. 

The West Coast—California, Oregon, and others—has successfully addressed earthquake infrastructure resiliency for decades. On the East Coast, New York Mayor Bloomberg proposed a long awaited plan to buttress and reinforce their infrastructure following Hurricane Sandy. Are such public efforts models for what you'd like to incorporate into federal policy?

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Absolutely. You have made significant progress in California (and I know you’ve been involved with a number of these plans, David), and there are other examples of people making investments to prevent more property damage—and even more important, loss of life—in the future. People on the West Coast are preparing for tsunamis that are inevitably going to happen. I commend Mayor Bloomberg for being a beacon here on this. Some will argue that they could have shaped their recovery package requests a little more dramatically and tightly to help people now and taxpayers in the future, but he’s clearly moving forward.

This is not entirely new. They’ve been looking at this in New York for some time, and the progress has been slow, but there is no substitute for incorporating this into our overall approach to development going forward. We are a growing country; our population is increasing. We have building stock that is wearing out, is in some cases is technologically inadequate, and much of which is inappropriately located from an environmental perspective. If we incorporate these principals into long-term capital planning, stay at it, and then use events—be they earthquake, fire, flood, tsunami, hurricane—and their aftermath to make progress, we will be well on our way to managing the problem. The alternative is to have people in harm’s way remain victims and have the government on the hook for ever-larger expenditures. If we continue the status quo, we’re going to see greater loss of life and property. 

Could you comment upon the National Flood Insurance Program, which now covers more than one trillion in assets? What’s now at risk with respect to that federal program?

This has been an area that I have spent a lot of time on over the last dozen years. I was a principal author of the Bunning-Bereuter-Blumenauer Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2004 that started us down the path of reform, provided more incentives for mitigation, included a pilot program to reduce repetitive flood losses, and, most importantly, started making the insurance rates that people pay to be actuarially sound. One thing that the 2004 legislation and other reform efforts since have tried to address is that, historically, people who are in areas that are subjected to repetitive flood loss do not pay the full actuarial cost. This means they are being subsidized by other flood insurance policy holders who are paying more than they should, and this contributes to people being slow to modify their behavior.

We made some progress in 2004, and Congress passed another revision last year that I think was significant. But part of the dynamic at work here is that people are trying to delay the implementation of the new flood maps and the actuarial rates that would reduce the subsidies for some policyholders. So there’s a battle going on now with regards to implementation, and we’ve got a long way to go to realize the promise of reform.

We do people no favors by giving them misleading information about the likelihood of a 100-year or a 500-year flood. We do them no favors by artificially subsidizing development in hazardous areas with heavily subsidized insurance. This is going to prove financially unsustainable in the long run, and it is going to encourage the wrong behaviors. We need to make sure that we’re actually implementing the reforms, updating the maps, and acting accordingly.

Help our readers understand who ought to be the political audience for your recommended policies. For the record, as you well know, scientists now say that what once was referred to as a 100-year flood is now more likely to happen every three to 20 years. And at the same time, roughly 39 percent of the American population, 123 million people, dwells in the costal counties most impacted by sea rise and these phenomena.

The audience should be the people who are in harm’s way. Part of the problem is that our attention is episodic. As you know, I’d been talking about what was going to happen in New Orleans for quite a long time. In the aftermath of Katrina, one of the networks pulled out a clip from a speech I’d given six months earlier in which I predicted the flooding. But if we fail to respond in a thoughtful and direct fashion, we are actually putting more people at risk. Every time we have a disaster there are examples of people who lose their lives trying to rescue a pet, or first responders who end up losing their lives. This is dangerous behavior that puts residents, businesses, and first responders at risk, and I think we need to be more rigorous about pointing out these dangers and fighting to avoid them.

Second, it’s something that has to be done on an incremental basis. We aren’t going to be able to pivot overnight. As you point out, 39 percent of the population lives in flood-prone areas, and that number is increasing. So what needs to happen is for the federal government to send signals through direct spending, the insurance system, through the tax system, and through infrastructure investment. I would argue that it needs to additionally be communicated in the way we help people recover. We aren’t just going to put people back in harm’s way to let them rebuild in the same place in the same way. We need to escalate development standards, and this must involve our long-term political commitments.

One of the things I am thinking about is if there is some way to have a mechanism that is similar to the base closing commission. It was clear after a while that we simply couldn’t close a military base because when one military base is at risk, they combine with someone else who is going to lose their facility, and pretty soon they make deals and you don’t close anything. We responded by establishing a base closing commission that made recommendations that had to be accepted up or down. It couldn’t be factored out, it couldn’t be amended, and there couldn’t be side deals. It was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, and I think this is part of what we need to do in terms of disaster relief: have a mechanism that is sustainable over time and that you cannot end up logrolling.

I would think that if we were able to be more thoughtful and sustained in our response we could bend the shape of this curve. The question is, can we do it fast enough? Because in some of the areas that are subjected to repeated flooding and wildfires, the problem may outrace us. There are estimates that there will be one million people in the flame zone around metropolitan Denver within 20 years. That just compounds the problem and the expense. 

In closing Earl, you for years long advocated for a 21st-century Gallatin-like report on planning our nation's infrastructure investments for the 21st century. Would such an agenda now include investment in resiliency after a natural disaster?

I think it would. In part because the events are so dramatic and the costs are spiraling out of control with the prospect of climate change making this even more of a nightmare scenario, I think we can get more attention to it. I think you cannot deal with rebuilding and renewing America unless you are able to try to keep people out of harm’s way, make communities more resilient, and have better ways to recover that makes a disaster less likely and less expensive in the future. I think it may be a cornerstone not just for a new vision to rebuild America, but looking at the budget through a prism of natural disaster policy might be a way that we can enter into a more realistic, honest, and productive conversation around extreme weather events and climate change. I think resiliency should be front and center.

We look forward to carrying on that discussion at VerdeXchange 2014 in January.

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© 2014 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.