Federal government needs a new way to pay for disasters 

As sure as tornadoes erupt and waters rise, there’s another certainty for this disaster-plagued spring of 2011: It’s going to cost the U.S. government a lot of money, likely much more than Congress has budgeted so far.

Following an April that suffered nearly 800 twisters wreaking destruction across more than 20 states. Nearly a dozen states are experiencing significant flooding along their rivers and streams, including the lower Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The Southwest is battling epic drought and wildfires. Texas alone has seen more than 1 million acres burned and is spending more than $1 million a day battling fires. And just ahead are the big summer tornado months and a hurricane season many experts think will be more active than average.

The spending plan Congress approved earlier this month included $2.6 billion through September for the disaster-relief fund administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but $1.56 billion was already obligated to prior disasters.

Governors of all political persuasions are seldom shy about seeking federal help to help pay for response and rebuilding after a calamity. Many governors announce that their state is “in an economic crisis,” as did California Gov. Jerry Brown in his request for a disaster declaration to help pay for cleanup and repair of ports affected by the March 10 tsunami, estimated to cost $48 million.

Although President Barack Obama hasn’t approved every request, he has signed nearly 160 presidential disaster declarations in just over two years in office, including a single-year record of 81 last year, even absent any major hurricane landfalls or, until last month, major tornado outbreaks.

Disaster declarations are key to not only getting states and localities reimbursed for at least 75 percent — and often 90 percent or 100 percent — of the costs for sandbagging, fire fighting, evacuating and rescuing people, and moving debris. They also pay for things like rebuilding roads, bridges, hospitals and fire stations, plus opening the way for affected families and businesses to get grants or loans.

Many disaster experts have argued that the feds should spend more on preventing or limiting disaster damage rather than repeatedly bailing out those who build too close to the water or in fire-prone areas. Others urge the government to set up a national insurance pool to cover disaster costs.

But the latest budget deal also cut $50 million from FEMA’s disaster-mitigation program and $38 million from a program to update flood maps around the country.

With lawmakers consumed with deficit cutting and debt limits, it may be hard to find time for debate over how disaster responses and preparations are funded. But money will surely have to be found to pay for more disaster declarations. Lack of a rational, comprehensive system to pay for disasters only creates more uncertainty for victims and for the federal budget.

Lee Bowman is a science and health writer for the Scripps Howard News Service.

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