The rising cost of climate-driven disasters including hurricanes and fires is prompting Fema to shift more responsibility to states
Gabrielle Canon in San Francisco
As crews continue to sift through the rubble in the aftermath of California’s deadly November fires, another battle is just beginning. Now that the flames have been extinguished, officials are trying to figure out how to pay for the enormous costs – and who will pick up the tab. Thousands are still without housing across the state, hundreds of whom have spent the rainy weeks hunkered down in parking lots, waiting for Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) trailers to arrive, and crews are beginning the long process to remove the toxic debris, a process that costs more than $1,000 a parcel. In the weeks since the fires were put out, more than $180m in grants and loans have been made available by state and federal agencies to survivors across the state, and more than 24,100 families have applied for federal disaster assistance. The number is likely to be a fraction of what the agencies will spend in the coming years on the disaster. For the 2017 California fires, which were considered the most destructive on record until this year, Fema allocated roughly $1.4bn – and is still paying. “When Fema goes into any disaster, we are there for the long haul,” said the agency spokesman, Michael Hart, who added that there were still teams working across the US to provide relief for hurricanes and superstorms from years – even decades – past. “We will be here for as long as it takes,” he adds. But as climate-driven disasters across the US grow in number and intensity, putting a strain on resources available for both preparedness and response, the federal government may be increasingly absent in financing the recovery for future fires. For the last eight years, California’s department of forestry and fire protection has had to take millions more out of the state’s emergency fund to put out the worsening wildfires – and expenditures have gone from $90m in 2010 to more than $947m in the last season. Federal fire suppression costshave increased just as sharply, with more than a 562% jump over the last 20 years. But even though more is spent on stifling the flames, fires continue to become more destructive – and accordingly, recovery has become more pricey. Seven of the top 10 most destructive wildfires on record in the state have occurred in the last two years. And this year alone, more than 6,200 fires burned through 876,200 acres –nearly triple the five-year average. The destruction is a mere fraction of the toll caused by disasters across the US. 2017 was a historic year for catastrophes, with 16 separate billion-dollar-plus level events occurring within months of one another. The costs to federal agencies topped $300bn and experts agree that climate change will cause superstorms and wildfires to worsen, busting budgets at all levels of government.
The US Government Accountability Office has cited the disasters as a “key source of federal fiscal exposure” that will continue to worsen with climate change, and the federal government has been looking for ways to redistribute the financial burden. States and localities may soon be increasingly on their own to finance the recovery. “The bottom line is that my operational capacity internally does not grow with the number of events we have,” the Fema chief, Brock Long, said at a governors’ conference this year, outlining the agency’s plan that transfers more responsibility to state and local stakeholders. Putting more pressure on states now may make them more resilient in the future, especially since the agency struggles when multiple disasters strike at once. Last year, three historic hurricanes swept through areas of the US in succession: Harvey in Texas, Irma in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Georgia and Florida, and then Maria, which decimated Puerto Rico. California’s wildfires came shortly afterward. Nearly 26 million people were affected, and before fire season had ended, more than 4 million survivors had registered for help from the hampered agency. But Fema was spread thin. According to a GAO analysis of the incident, there was a staff shortage of more than 30%, and more than half of those sent were too unqualified or overwhelmed from back-to-back deployments to handle their mission needs. It slowed the response, especially when it came to debris removal, which extended into 2018. When new fires broke out this year, crews were still clearing damage from the last ones.“When you are looking at the costs of disasters, and disaster spending, there’s not just the immediate response, which makes the headlines,” she added. “It is the long-term recovery – which can go on for years. And it is all the preparation and mitigation that needs to happen in advance to help not just reduce cost, but reduce damage and impact of disasters.” Risk reduction and preparedness are the only ways to lessen the cost and protect lives, and experts have called for more funding up front to ensure savings in the future at the state and federal level. A study released this year by the National Institute of Building Sciences found that $1 spent on hazard mitigation saved the country $6 in future disaster costs. “We’ve spent [more] money on fires than in any [other] time in our history,” said Nick Nauslar, a fire weather forecaster for the National Weather Service. “But we are trying to evolve. It is a large, complex, non-linear problem and there are a lot of moving parts … I think we are moving in the right direction.” Nauslar commended improvements in the way agencies come together to tackle the response efforts in emergencies, but said more needed to done. The problem, he said, was “starting to get on enough people’s radars to where we can start gaining a groundswell of momentum to make bigger changes”, he says. “Sometimes events like this can be a catalyst for change … I hope we learn from our mistakes and I am cautiously optimistic that we will improve our services, improve our science, improve our communication.” Source: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/27/natural-disasters-cost-us-fema-wildfires-hurricanes
The funding processThe federal government has in recent years sought to pressure states to plan for disasters and take greater responsibility for recovery. Fema has floated a policy that would require states to have disaster deductibles to curb federal expenses. Under the current system, federal resources are made available to states and localities after the president has declared a “major disaster”, a process that is somewhat murky and often left to the president’s discretion. Fema is charged with advising the president on the decision, usually based on damage or risk to public infrastructure and how high the costs have become. Then the government will reimburse state and local governments, usually up to 75%. Sometimes governors are left disappointed after relief requests; other times they get more money than expected.
“The tripwires for who pays for what in a disaster is very complex and there are many federal agencies involved,” said Anne Stauffer, a director with the Pew Charitable Trusts, adding that eight of the last 10 years had been the most expensive in Fema’s history.