On March 19th, the Committee leaders for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and its Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management introduced a bill that might set the stage for significant changes to the Stafford Act, the primary source of legislation to provide federal disaster assistance.
The proposed law seeks to make important changes to specific federal disaster programs. These include providing protections and benefits to members of the Urban Search and Rescue System, making places of worship that provide essential services to the general public eligible for disaster assistance, providing eligibility for hazard mitigation funds to States receiving fire management assistance, and changing the threshold for utilizing simplified procedures for FEMA’s Public Assistance Program.
HR 1471 would also provide relief to individuals and States that were incorrectly awarded disaster assistance funds by FEMA, through no fault of their own, and prevent FEMA from seeking to recoup those funds after a period of time had elapsed, forcing the agency to “step up its game” even further to get awarding disaster assistance right the first time.
However, it is the reports and studies required by this proposed legislation that might result in the most significant impact. The reports seek to explore not just the way federal disaster assistance is delivered, but who is in fact responsible to deliver such assistance in the first place.
The first set of reports aims to improve the delivery of federal disaster assistance. FEMA would be required to report how it seeks to improve the transition of case files between rotating reservists, a longstanding issue for the agency. Another provision would require FEMA to report on the assistance available to commercial and governmental housing COOPS and condominiums. A third report would explore the different standards for electric utility facilities between FEMA and the Rural Utilities Service of the Department of Agriculture.
A fourth report might set the stage for fundamental changes to the Stafford Act.
Within 120 days of the passage of HR1471, FEMA, through its National Advisory Council (NAC), would be required to identify trends in disaster costs and contributing factors to these changes such as “shifting demographics and aging infrastructure.” It would also focus on those factors specifically contributing to federal disaster declarations. The NAC would be tasked to identify all available forms of federal disaster assistance, how quickly these funds were used, and how they were coordinated, while also identifying what disaster costs are borne by the private sector and individuals. The NAC would also be required to look more generally at “mechanisms and incentives to promote disaster cost reduction and mitigation” and to “identify fundamental legal, societal, geographic and technological challenges to implementation.”
The data to be collected sets the stage for what would be the most important part of the NAC’s work: reporting on the “fundamental principles that should drive national disaster assistance decision making, including the appropriate roles for each level of government, the private sector and individuals.”
It’s been nearly 30 years since Congress last looked at these roles. This would be no easy task given the entrenched interests across the spectrum of disaster assistance. Moreover, any serious report would have to confront the difficult issue of whether certain forms of disaster assistance, such as flood insurance, over time, provide adverse incentives to reducing disaster costs.
But just because these questions might be hard to ask, and their answers difficult to hear, it could launch a long overdue, but sorely needed, debate about who is responsible for disaster assistance, who should bear and regulate the risks, and ultimately, who should pay.
Quin Lucie is an attorney with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and received his masters degree in Homeland Security Studies from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School. The opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security or the Federal Government.