Washington Report: It’s Time to Revisit Resiliency Legislation

by Craig Piercy, ACPA Washington Advocate


The Atlantic hurricane season is back with a deadly vengeance. After 11 years of relative calm, two back-to-back Category 4 storms have inflicted significant damage on two of America’s largest metropolitan areas.

While Florida and the Houston area are continuing to recover, there is a lot to be thankful for. While the numbers have not yet been finalized as of this writing, the combined U.S. death toll for Harvey and Irma are likely to remain well below the 1,833 deaths caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Yes, the nature of the storms themselves is different and direct comparisons are risky, but there is no doubt that better planning this time around saved lives.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and state disaster preparation and recovery efforts benefited significantly from the lessons of Hurricane Katrina. With both Harvey and Irma, evacuations were ordered earlier. Recovery supplies were pre-positioned. National Guard troops were sent into the affected areas without delay. Better, more robust networks were available to allow federal, state and local first responders to communicate more seamlessly. Finally, many of the centralized decision-making processes that were common in the pre-Katrina era are now delegated to the “front lines” of the response and recovery effort.

However, while the initial response may have improved, Washington’s ability to withstand the fiscal impacts of natural disasters of this magnitude remains poor. Consider this: The total recovery costs for Irma and Harvey could reach as much as $300 billion. A significant proportion of this cost will likely be paid for by the taxpayer or added to the federal debt. However, FEMA’s disaster relief fund had only $3 billion in its account immediately prior to hurricane Harvey’s landfall in Texas.

Then there is flood insurance. Today, the only way to buy it is through the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which is chronically in the red because the premiums it charges policyholders are simply not enough to cover its losses. Prior to Harvey’s landfall, the program was $24 billion in debt, and claims related to the 2017 hurricane season could add another $10 billion on top of that, requiring a short-term fix by Congress. In addition, the program consistently subsidizes policyholders and coastal counties at the expense of those in inland counties, with the state of Florida being the prime beneficiary.

Just as FEMA was forced to reassess its practices after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I hope the Harvey/Irma one-two punch of 2017 forces Congress and the administration to rethink how it prepares itself fiscally for future disasters.

A good place to start is emphasizing the concept of “resiliency” in our federal policies. In layman’s terms, resiliency means investing a little more ahead of time to construct homes or commercial structures that can better withstand the damage from hurricanes, floods and earthquakes, rather than paying a lot more after the fact to replace what mother nature destroys. Also known as “predisaster mitigation,” resiliency measures save money, reduce destruction and prevent the loss of lives in disaster-prone areas.

In 2015, ACPA joined with 14 other trade associations and engineering societies to form the Resilient Construction Coalition. Together, we have been engaging Congress and the administration to support the Disaster Savings and Resilient Construction Act, legislation that would provide a tax credit to home or building owners who employ resilient construction techniques when building or renovating in federally declared disaster areas.

When the Congressional Budget Office studied the impact of federal dollars spent on pre-disaster mitigation, it found that, “On average, future losses are reduced by about three dollars for every one dollar spent on those projects.” In the case of floods and wind-related damage from hurricanes and tornadoes, the payoff was almost five to one. In one neighborhood hit by Hurricane Ike in 2008, 10 of 13 resilient-constructed homes sustained minimal damage, while all other homes in the immediate area were totally destroyed. In fact, the three resilient houses that did not survive were destroyed by debris from regular houses knocked off their foundations by the storm surge.

Progress has been slow, but Congress should take a fresh look at this legislation now that it must spend tens of billions of dollars for Harvey/Irma recovery.

The quote widely attributed to Albert Einstein that “the definition of insanity is repeating identical behavior and expecting a different result” applies here. As sea levels rise and more people move to the coastal communities, we cannot afford to simply rebuild the same way over and over again after each disaster. It is not fair to the people who live and work in these structures, and it is not fair to the children from whom we borrow to fund it.

Or put differently: If you don’t support resiliency legislation, you are nuts!