WASHINGTON –- Two years ago, Superstorm Sandy devastated the northeastern United States, killing more than 70 people, causing $60 billion in damage and exposing major gaps in federal disaster preparedness and response. But there has been little movement in Congress to change policies to prepare the country for future disasters.
One thing Congress did was approve billions in aid for storm-struck areas -- but not until nearly three months after Sandy, on Jan. 28, 2013. And that package has been criticized in some corners for being both too slow and for including too few directives on rebuilding to make communities more resilient in future storms.
"We seek to rush emergency aid that too often reinforces our vulnerabilities, wastes money, and undercuts sound principles," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a vocal critic of federal disaster planning, in a statement to The Huffington Post this week. "We tolerate people moving into harm’s way, water down reforms, and focus on the immediate news cycle rather than the long term."
The federal government bears a lot of disaster costs, through both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Flood Insurance Program, which is more than $20 billion in debt. Shortly after the vote in Congress on Sandy aid, the Government Accountability Office -- tasked with analyzing how Congress spends taxpayer money -- issued a report warning about the government's "fiscal exposure" to climate change and extreme weather events (which scientists have found are being affected by climate change). FEMA and NFIP are especially vulnerable, the report said.
Another critic is Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.). One of the first votes he cast after joining the House in 2013 was in favor of the Sandy relief package. That vote, said Cartwright in an interview with The Huffington Post, "was an eye-opener for me." He noted that some fiscal conservatives tried to block the funding -- even some from the Gulf Coast and Midwest who had earlier voted in favor of disaster funding for their own states.
Both the Sandy vote and the GAO report drove home for Cartwright that the government's system of paying for disasters, wasn't efficient. "We shouldn't have to spend as much with FEMA funds," said Cartwright, "if we did a better job preparing for extreme weather events." It inspired the Preparedness and Risk Management for Extreme Weather Patterns Assuring Resilience Act -- or PREPARE, -– that Cartwright introduced in July.
The bill aims to improve government disaster programs, requiring agencies to include preparedness and risk-management in their planning and creating regional coordination. The bill had 16 co-sponsors when it was introduced, including five Republicans, and along list of endorsing organizations.
For Cartwright, the bill offered a bridge between lawmakers concerned about climate impacts and those concerned with fiscal responsibility. "In the current atmosphere, you can't really talk about climate change with our brothers and sisters across the aisle, and some of our brothers and sisters on the same side of the aisle," he said. "So what you look for is how to advance the ball without offending people. The PREPARE Act speaks to our common impulse to act like grown-ups when it comes to protecting our assets."
There ha been no action so far on the PREPARE Act, and GovTrack gives it only a 3 percent chance of being enacted by this Congress. But it does provide a bipartisan starting point for discussing disaster response.
Meanwhile, Congress has acted in one area related to Sandy and disasters -- but it was to kill a reform. In March, Congress repealed changes it made to the National Flood Insurance Program in 2012 that would have raised rates on some properties in flood-prone areas. Homeowners affected by the price increases had balked. Critics of that reversal said the reforms would have helped address the long-term solvency of the flood insurance program. Those critics, from both the left and the right, accused Congress of making a short-term, politically expedient decision instead of dealing with the bigger problems.
Blumenauer reflected some of this frustration in his comments this week. "What do we really have to show for $60 billion in Sandy relief spending that will minimize the damage for the next big -- or bigger -- inevitable storm?" he asked.