The year 2017 will be remembered for its hurricanes and wildfires. Although cost estimates are still being compiled for the 2017 hurricane season, a conservative assessment of damages from just Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria start at about $202.6 billion. Moreover, at the time of writing this, Santa Ana winds have spread six major wildfires over 175,000 acres of Southern California, forcing more than 90,000 residents from their homes. Rebuilding from 2017’s unprecedented destruction will require not only reestablishing infrastructure, homes, and businesses, but ensuring that what is rebuilt is made less vulnerable to future natural disasters.
All states and territories affected by the 2017 disasters have sought Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) help, which funds public assistance, individual assistance, and hazard mitigation. Even though hazard mitigation returns $4 for every dollar invested, in the past, a paltry percentage of disaster assistance has been allocated for this program. From 2005 to 2014, just $600 million of the more than $277 billion federal dollars for disaster assistance went to reduce future disaster risks and costs.
Hazard mitigation that reduces future costs include flood-resistant buildings, relocating people from risky areas through buyouts, and improving drainage by preserving wetlands and open space. More and more policy-makers on both sides of the aisle recognize that a greater share of FEMA’s resources should be directed to hazard mitigation. In fact, the US Congress Joint Economic Committee published the November 2017 study, The Need to Rebuild Smarter, which concludes that not only should more FEMA funds be allocated to hazard mitigation, but zoning standards need to be strengthened to prevent building in high-risk areas. That means municipal, state, and federal governments need to work together to reduce future losses of life and property.
States, too, are learning this painful lesson. On November 1, Texas Governor Gregg Abbott requested an additional $61 billion from the federal government to “future proof” flood-prone areas. The plan focused on flood control, with about 61 percent of the funds going to hazard mitigation and 33 percent toward housing. Specifically, the plan targets property buy-outs in flood-prone areas, aiming to improve and increase runoff solutions like reservoirs. The monies would add a significant demand for construction jobs in a state already short on labor. But the funding is only a proposal at this point, because the budget process is now in conference committee. To get any budget passed through the Senate, a lot of other sweetheart deals are being made. Future-proofing Texas flood zones hangs in the balance.
Whether you are awaiting relief or thinking about how close you live to a river, you should consider personal preparation strategies now. Likewise, those living next to burned areas will have to worry about runoff when the rains come. There are a variety of simple steps you can take now to do your own hazard mitigation. For ideas check out FEMA’s Are You Ready?
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