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The disaster aid fight shows just how unprepared Congress is to deal with the effects of climate change

Right now, combatting natural disasters is much more focused on relief than prevention.

Mother Isamar holds her baby Saniel, nine months old, at their makeshift home after Hurricane Maria, on December 23, 2017 in San Isidro, Puerto Rico.
Mother Isamar holds her baby Saniel, nine months old, at their makeshift home after Hurricane Maria, on December 23, 2017 in San Isidro, Puerto Rico.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

The US government isn’t ready to deal with the effects of climate change, and the congressional fight over disaster aid underscores why.

While Congress has been duking it out over how much money places like Puerto Rico and Florida should get in the wake of devastating hurricanes, other parts of the US have been hit with disasters in the interim. Massive flooding overwhelmed multiple states in the Midwest. A “bomb cyclone” exacerbated the issue. And lawmakers still have yet to approve a dime, on a package they’ve been debating since last December.

All of this is to say that the way the US approaches disaster aid hasn’t kept up with the pace of climate change’s effects: While aid is primarily being used to react to natural disasters, as more and more are taking place at greater intensity, that approach means perpetually playing catch-up.

The congressional process for addressing disasters has been around for some time, and it’s heavily flawed. For one, the sluggish appropriations process can cause significant delays in the delivery of aid. For another, the government is focused predominately on relief, not prevention. Rather than pouring money into strengthening or adapting infrastructure so it can more effectively withstand natural disasters, for example, most funding is dedicated to providing aid to people after the fact.

It’s an unsustainable approach, disaster preparedness experts say, given the surge we’ve seen in natural disasters in recent years. And it desperately needs to change as this trend continues.

Recent data makes a compelling case: According to statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, over the past several decades, the government responded to roughly six disasters a year that caused $1 billion each in damages. Between 2014-2018, however, that number spiked to 13 disasters a year.

As many experts have argued, the approach to tackling natural disasters needs to be flipped altogether, with more money dedicated to preventing much of this damage from happening in the first place, rather than simply responding to it.

That’s far from how it currently works, though things have been improving. As it stands, Congress allocates annual disaster appropriations for agencies like FEMA, and one-off supplemental funding to provide extra support for each disaster as it happens. By green-lighting these supplemental funds after disasters have taken place, however, lawmakers are constantly swooping in once the damage has already been done.

That’s what’s occurring now, as the House and Senate tussle over how much aid states struck by hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes and floods should receive, all while President Donald Trump threatens to reject any plan that sends more funds to Puerto Rico.

In the short term, the back-and-forth over the latest disaster aid package is holding much-needed repairs and even funding for food stamps, in the balance. In the long term, it’s a sign of just how much Congress needs to rethink the way it addresses disaster aid — and disasters themselves.

The current fight over disaster aid centers on Trump’s aversion to helping Puerto Rico

Congress is currently caught up in a spending battle over disaster aid, and it’s largely because of President Donald Trump.

As Vox’s Tara Golshan reports, Democrats have pushed for additional funding to support Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2017, while Trump has sought to limit that aid. Trump’s longstanding aversion to helping Puerto Rico comes down to allegations he’s made, with no evidence, about the regional government mismanaging funds that it’s already received to pay for previous debts.

While he’s resistant to helping Puerto Rico, Trump has also demanded $4.5 billion in funding for border-related aid, something that Democrats aren’t exactly happy about. Ongoing conflict on both issues has caused significant delays, with residents across the country waiting on much-needed money: Four months after the House passed its first version of the latest disaster aid bill earlier this year, Congress still has yet to find a bipartisan agreement.

“I believe I’m correct that this has taken longer than after any previous disaster to address the problem,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters last week.

The politicization of disaster aid — once considered a straightforward legislative ask — has been disheartening for some experts.

“The overall and most extraordinary problem to me is how much money for disasters on every level has been so incredibly politicized,” says Irwin Redlener, the director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness.

While such fights haven’t always been so partisan in the past, the recent conflict appears poised to solidify a new precedent that’s more and more common under divided government. As Senate leaders signaled this week, they plan to take another vote on an aid package later this month.

That vote would come more than seven months after Hurricane Michael hit Florida, over a year since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and multiple months after major flooding destroyed towns in the Midwest.

Natural disasters are only expected to get worse, and aid funding isn’t doing much to mitigate their impact

According to climate scientists, the frequency and intensity of storms, wildfires, and flooding are increasing, in part, as a result of climate change.

Many experts argue it’s no longer sufficient to simply respond to natural disasters when they happen. Instead, they say we should take preemptive efforts that try to limit the amount of damage they may cause. Such moves could include rehabilitating dated infrastructure like levees, making sure buildings are up to modern codes and rebuilding in areas that may be less susceptible to flooding.

Right now, however, the way the government approaches natural disasters is still extremely reactive.

In 2018, for example, Congress allocated $249 million for hazard mitigation efforts aimed at preventing damage from future natural disasters, compared to nearly $7.4 billion it doled out to FEMA’s disaster relief fund overall.

Additionally, although the federal government has funds set aside for reducing damage caused by natural disasters down the line, a huge chunk isn’t accessible until an area has already been hit by a natural disaster, according to a September 2018 analysis by Pew Charitable Trusts. While those funds are certainly helpful, they’re basically only accessible after a major disaster has caused significant damage.

“If you think about the continuum of prevention, mitigation, response, and recovery, we’re best at response, worse at recovery, and worst at prevention,” Redlener says.

The case for spending to rebuild after a disaster isn’t driven by solely humanitarian aims either; there’s also political incentive for lawmakers to allocate more for relief than prevention. According to a FiveThirtyEight analysis, “voters reward presidents for spending on relief, but not for spending on preparedness.”

The argument for spending more on mitigation, though not as self-evidently and immediately beneficial, has been proven by numerous studies: A review by National Institute of Building Sciences found that every $1 invested in preventative efforts translated to $6 saved in longer-term relief costs.

It’s a dynamic that’s been consistent for some time, evidenced by the response to Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Vox’s Ella Nilsen reported:

The United States spends about $300 billion responding to natural disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. In contrast, we only spend about $600 million on mitigation — improving buildings so they won’t flood when the next storm comes. This is despite the fact that mitigation has a 4-1 payback, [Larry]Larson, a [a senior policy adviser at the Association of State Floodplain Managers] said. The problem is that people often don’t want to spend money upfront to protect their house or business, and then get caught up in a cycle of rebuilding.

The strategy may have worked before, when natural disasters were flukes rather than more regular occurrences. But it’s falling short as climate change spurs an influx of everything from tropical storms to wildfires.

“The way that we’re doing this is really not sustainable,” says Ellen Vaughan, a policy director at the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. “It really does beg the question for more investment in preventative measures, in mitigation, to make our communities and our infrastructure more resilient.”

Congress is starting to address the surge in natural disasters

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have said they’re interested in changing this process so that congressional budgets include more money for both disaster relief and mitigation. This would ensure states and cities are more ready to weather possible disasters and preempt the need for as many supplemental appropriations debates.

One proposed effort would try to preemptively boost the disaster relief budget, so it’s not as dependent on extra appropriations midway through the year. This tactic, which is supported by senators like Mike Enzi (R-WY), could help prevent fights like the ongoing one in the Senate.

Bolstering FEMA’s disaster funding would also acknowledge the degree of damage that natural disasters have begun to cause, though it would only really be tackling the logistics and timing behind the spending fights, and not so much the substance of how the money is used.

“Given the magnitude of these disasters, it probably makes sense to have more money planned to respond but I think that it’s a Band-Aid,” says the Environmental and Energy Study Institute’s Vaughan.

Other recent legislation, such as the Disaster Recovery Reform Act, which became law in October 2018, does more to change the focus of the conversation.

The DRRA gives a boost in infrastructure funding for pre-disaster mitigation, and acknowledges just how important preventative measures are. These “grants are intended to help individuals, communities and states invest in mitigation strategies such as elevating structures, adding safe rooms, and implementing the latest building codes and standards,” according to a fact sheet from the Environmental and Energy Study Institute.

Putting this law into action could significantly inject more funds for preventative efforts around the county, Vaughan says. According to a May story in the Coloradoan, however, such implementation is still very much a work in progress.

Some of these changes offer an indication that lawmakers’ views on disaster response are beginning to shift, though they may not be doing so quickly enough.

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