Isn’t there a better way for Congress to figure our disaster relief than run it through this current political gauntlet?

Late Tuesday night, the House passed a $51 billion Superstorm Sandy aid bill — $17 billion for transit and relief aid and $33 billion for longer-term projects.
Only a handful of Republicans joined Democrats and Republicans from the Northeast in approving the final $33 billion by a vote of 241-180. The Senate could take the measure up next week for the second time, as early as next week.
Have you been following the Congressional fight about the request for federal support for Superstorm Sandy rebuilding in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut?  Within weeks after Sandy hit, President Barack Obama requested a $60 billion emergency bill.  The Senate quickly passed it (in the last Congress.)  But House Republicans balked, saying it was too much money.  With Sandy now almost three months past, this delay created a new storm – this one of angry protests. U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-New York) called this a “cruel knife in the back” and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said House inaction shows “why people hate Washington.”   Ouch.  And these are Republicans saying this.
Isn’t there a better way to fund disaster relief than run it through this political gauntlet?
I think so. Here are a few modest proposals.
1. Fix the National Flood Insurance Program.  After paying its bills without a problem for 40 years through FEMA’s program, Superstorm Sandy was the second major hit on the program in seven years and it drained the funds.  Two weeks ago, Congress passed a $9.7 billion bill replenishing the National Flood Insurance Program so it can reimburse policy homeowners and businesses affected by Sandy.  With storms becoming more frequent, and with more intensity, it’s time to re-think how to fund this insurance program and at what level.
2.  Change insurance guidelines.  Along with fixing the funding strategy, it’s also time to think again about the guidelines regarding what is covered by insurance.  There was a time when building in a “vulnerable area” was a concern for only a few places in our country.  But with rising ocean waters and increasing storm intensity, we should be reconsidering whether it’s appropriate to use federal insurance protection for those who build on seashores or flood plains.  It may also be time to reconsider architectural guidelines and building codes during the insurance qualification practice.  Congress took steps in this direction last year, but there’s much more to do  in cooperation with state and local governments.
3.  Establish a National Catastrophe Fund?  The $60 billion Sandy request couldn’t have come to Congress at a worse time: right in the middle of a huge fight about how to deal with the deficit and whether to raise the debt ceiling.  Our elected officials have a responsibility to ask tough questions about legislation.  And make no mistake; $60 billion is a lot of money – more than the total budgets of either the State Department or the Commerce Department. It didn’t help those promoting Sandy support to learn that the bill includes roughly $2 billion for regions not affected by Sandy, including fisheries in Alaska, areas in Colorado impacted by the wildfires, and Florida’s NASA facilities.
According to one Capitol Hill source I read, the bill includes:

  • $17 Billion for Community Development Block Grants, allowing states and localities to get aid where it is most needed.
  • $5.35 Billion for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, critical for rebuilding New Jersey’s weakened coastal defenses.
  • $12 Billion to Restore Transportation Systems, including the rebuilding of roads and the restoration of transit systems and ports.

And billions more for immediate recovery needs including the construction of new houses; financing and support for small businesses affected by the storm; and infrastructure reconstruction, including energy and water/wastewater.
But the Los Angeles Times pointed out that roughly $33 billion is aimed at girding for future catastrophes, not just fixing destruction from Sandy.  I’m sure any Governor – with or without a disaster – would love to have money for making infrastructure improvements in his or her state.  So what’s emergency relief? And what is rebuilding infrastructure and what is planning for the future?  A disaster relief bill is probably not a good place to begin funding the rebuilding of our country’s crumbling infrastructure.
4.  Start a Disaster Planning Fund.  Which leads me to my final point.  In addition to providing money in a less political way after a disaster hits, lets put more money into planning for disasters, by helping states put together plans and prepare for disasters.
The disaster relief community is learning that disasters are more frequent and more intense.  We’re seeing better planning and preparation from government agencies like FEMA, nonprofits who supply most of the emergency relief and private philanthropists.  There’s also increased focus on recovery and rebuilding.  It’s time for our elected officials in Congress to be more proactive and deliberative in responding and preparing for disasters too.

Robert G. Ottenhoff

More like this