The Congressional Research Service (specifically the stalwart Bruce R. Lindsay and redoubtable Francis X. McCarthy) has produced a new study entitled: Considerations for a Catastrophic Declaration: Issues and Analysis. It was released to Congress on June 21 and has subsequently been made available to the public by the Federation of American Scientists.
As with most CRS products the report is comprehensive, credible, and cautious. The analysis provides a helpful overview of the current policy landscape. The CRS is not tasked to advise or innovate. The CRS is tasked with even-handed research and reporting to inform members and their staff of options and major issues, usually bounded by the traditional policy frameworks recognizable to their principal audiences.
Some key outputs from the report:
If amended, the Stafford Act might provide a declaration for what might be classified as a “megadisaster” or “catastrophic disaster.” It is unclear, however, what differentiates a disaster from a catastrophe. (Page 4)
A catastrophic declaration may be used to trigger certain mechanisms before, during, and after a catastrophe. Policymakers might also elect to apply a catastrophic declaration to one or more phases of the incident. (Page 5)
Given the number of large-scale disasters occurring in the last 30 years, one might conclude that large-scale disasters are occurring more frequently—which might support an argument for a catastrophic declaration. A counterargument, on the other hand, is that in terms of damage costs, only Hurricane Katrina truly qualifies as a catastrophic event when compared to other, recent incidents. It might be further argued that while many of the most expensive disasters have occurred in recent years, the increased costs associated with such incidents are a function of variables that are not necessarily related to the magnitude of the incidents (such as increased federal expenditures for assistance and recovery projects, the replacement of expensive infrastructure, and the development of previously uninhabited areas). (Page 12)
Upon reviewing the results of the comparative analysis of destructive incidents, it could be argued that highly destructive events occur too rarely to warrant a catastrophic declaration. Using the 90th percentile as a benchmark, only one event in the last 140 years would be catastrophic and only four would qualify if the 80th percentile is used as a benchmark. Similar conclusions might be drawn on the comparative analysis of combined VSL and damage estimate costs—specifically, that high-impact events are too infrequent to merit the addition of a new declaration category—only one incident in the last 100 years meets the 90th percentile threshold. Additionally, the threshold would have to be adjusted to the 20th percentile to include more than one incident. Critics of the additional declaration might further argue that VSL is a poor determinant for a catastrophic declaration because federal assistance is predominately tied to recovery projects rather than victim or survivor compensation. (Page 15)
Depending on its design, certain benefits may be derived from using a catastrophic declaration for large-scale disasters, including:
• accelerated and more robust federal assistance to states prior to an incident,
• the use of specialized response plans and guidelines for the federal response,
• the elimination or reduction of procedures and protocols that might impede response and recovery activities and efforts,
• the elimination or reduction of procedures and protocols that might delay the disbursal of federal assistance, and
• increasing the amount of federal assistance through various mechanisms to help states recovery more quickly and avoid economic hardship.
The potential drawbacks of a catastrophic declaration may include:
• unclear authority and responsibility designations could confuse those responsible for executing the response and recovery,
• increased federal costs for disaster assistance due to increased declaration activity,
• increased federal costs for disaster assistance due to the increased federal costshare provisions included with the declaration, and
• increased federal involvement and responsibility for incident response. (Page 17)
Please do not mistake the summary above as equal in value to the full CRS narrative.
Now for something completely different, as my fourth-cousin Michael has been known to say, you might review the pdf linked below. Where Lindsay and McCarthy are quantitative, the authors of this working draft (including yours truly) are more qualitative. Where CRS is reporting what is known and avoids advocacy, this other document explores admitted unknowns and advocates innovation in catastrophe preparedness far beyond the typical writ of Congress. The CRS report says little about private sector catastrophe preparedness; the other document is full of private sector implications and calls-to-action. One report is authoritative, the other wants to be provocative. The CRS report is official. There is nothing official in the working draft offered below.
The document accessed through the link is nearly 25 megabytes, so don’t give up too soon. If you have concerns or suggestions, this is a working draft and changes and additions will continue to be made through the middle of August.