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Disaster Recovery Reform: How Congress Can Better Prepare Us For The Next Disaster

Hurricane Florence may have unleashed its fury on the Carolinas and the East Coast, but with rains continuing and floodwaters still rising, the danger is far from over. For now, we can only guess at the amount of devastation caused by this historic hurricane.




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Other sections of the country also continue to recover from recent disasters, such as hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria; wildfires that have scorched much of the western U.S. in the past year; and more flooding throughout the Northeast and Midwest.

Disasters, both natural and man-made, will always pose a threat, and every community in America will face a disaster at some point. A sobering fact is that the costs of disaster, measured in lives lost and property destroyed, have been steadily increasing in the United States over the past 50 years.

We should seize any opportunity to lessen these impacts and costs, help our recovering communities, and reduce the burdens facing our first responders and local, state and federal emergency officials.

Reform Is Possible

One such opportunity is before Congress now.

The Disaster Recovery Reform Act (DRRA) is a bipartisan bill that has overwhelmingly passed the House twice since December, but it hasn’t yet made it through the Senate. My Republican and Democratic colleagues and I — including the bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Lou Barletta — are working to finally see this measure signed into law. Legislation to be voted on by the House this week (H.R. 302) includes DRRA again, and the Senate will hopefully take up the bill soon afterward.

The reasons Congress need to send DRRA to the president’ desk as soon as possible are simple.

Right now, federal disaster programs are too reactive. We wait for disaster to strike and then try to clean up afterward, often rebuilding our homes, communities and infrastructure exactly the way they were before. Even when the way things were before may have been insufficient, inefficient or ineffective.

DRRA would mark a significant shift in how we prepare for, respond to, recover from and mitigate against disasters by focusing more on pre-disaster mitigation — actions taken proactively before disaster strikes to lessen future impacts and losses. This legislation will get the most value out of our precious resources by incentivizing building better and smarter to protect Americans, as well as facilitating speedy recovery efforts whenever and wherever disasters occur.

Effective mitigation minimizes the potential loss of life and property from a disaster — based on identifying and understanding the risks in a given area or community. Mitigation can encompass a wide variety of activities that reduce the risk of future damage or loss, including preparation and planning, flood-proofing critical facilities like hospitals, elevating or moving structures prone to flooding, and hardening structures against hurricanes or earthquakes.

Mitigation vs. Recovery

To put this in perspective, imagine that you are living in the path of the next hurricane. Ask yourself, “Am I better off preparing for the gale force winds, flooding, and power outages before the hurricane gets here, or waiting until after it’s demolished my house?” We should ask ourselves the same question on a grand scale.

Not only does mitigation save lives, it is a more cost-effective, wiser use of taxpayer dollars. Studies demonstrate that for every $1 spent on mitigation, between $4 and $8 is saved in avoided disaster-recovery costs.

It costs less to prevent and minimize damage and to strengthen our communities than it does to simply spend resources on recovery afterward: a common-sense approach but not one that our federal programs currently emphasize. Facilitating and incentivizing mitigation is the most effective means of bending the cost curve for disasters.

Furthermore, DRRA helps address some key challenges affecting disaster recovery and puts more tools in the toolbox to help communities’ ongoing efforts to return to normal. For instance, the bill will clarify federal programs to help expedite assistance, resolve issues quickly and rebuild more efficiently; provide more flexibility in meeting disaster survivors’ housing needs; simplify federal requirements for individuals and state and local governments; help communities meet the needs of pets in disasters; and make the disaster assistance process more transparent.

We cannot let this opportunity to save lives and reduce federal, state and local disaster costs get lost amid the always hectic agenda when the end of a Congress is near. The best way to protect Americans and our communities from disaster is to prepare in advance, and by passing the Disaster Recovery Reform Act.

  • Rep. Shuster, R-Penn., is the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

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