The just-released Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force’s comprehensive rebuilding strategy includes the essential goal to “ensure the region is rebuilt in a way that makes it more resilient — that is, better able to withstand future storms and other risks posed by a changing climate.” This is critical because, as the Task Force warns, climate change will drive an increase in extreme weather, leaving an increasing number of communities vulnerable to the impacts and high cost of recovery.
While the rebuilding strategy ensures that residents of New York and New Jersey have the federal aid they need to build more resilient communities, the report does not include a recommendation to provide additional federal revenue to invest in resilience efforts in other communities vulnerable to storms, floods, drought, heat waves, and wildfires.
The Task Force notes that “we give all [New Jersey and New York] communities the tools they need to make sure that when we rebuild, we build back stronger and smarter.” Its focus is to ensure that federal Sandy funds invest in rebuilding more resilient buildings and infrastructure compared to what was destroyed: “We know that every dollar we spend today on hazard mitigation saves us at least $4 in avoided costs if a disaster strikes again. By building more resilient regions, we can save billions in taxpayer dollars.”
It benefits our economy and federal budget to help communities invest in resilience before devastating extreme weather events — such as Superstorm Sandy — occur. This would save thousands of lives and billions of dollars too. Yet the Task Force’s report does not include a recommendation to provide additional federal revenue to assist other communities with their resilience efforts. Instead, it urges communities to take steps such as using the existing State Revolving Fund to make their drinking water and sewage treatment systems less vulnerable to extreme weather. However, the House Appropriations Committee FY 2014 Interior and Environment spending bill would slash these funds by 86 percent.
An increase in community resilience to extreme weather will be expensive, according to the National Academy of Sciences report, “Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative.” It cautions that “significant investment is required to mitigate the losses of human life, risks to human health, and economic and social costs.”
Unlike New Jersey and New York, other places that are vulnerable to severe storms, floods, drought, heat wave, and wildfires will not receive significant federal investment in their resilience efforts. An analysis by the Center for American Progress found that the federal government spent only $1 on resilience efforts for every $6 spent on disaster recovery.
Because of lack of funds, some states have not adequately invested in community resilience. In the wake of the tornados in Moore, Oklahoma, the New York Times reported that, “only about 10 percent of homes in Moore” had storm-safe rooms or underground shelters.
And The Wall St. Journal reported that efforts to build safe rooms in local schools were also limited by the lack of federal assistance. According to the Journal, “Local officials said Tuesday [May 21, 2013] that about 100 schools in the state are equipped with safe rooms that were built with federal funds. The money had dried up in past years, officials said, and many schools were on a waiting list.”
The National Academy of Sciences report reiterates that many states and cities lack the resources to invest in resilience efforts, particularly in the wake of the Great Recession.
Making the case for investing in resilience programs … and in strengthening weak infrastructure is very challenging, especially in the context of demand for competing resources. Particularly during times of economic hardship, competing demand for many societally relevant resources … can be a major barrier to making progress in building resilience in communities.
More resources to help communities become more resilient to climate related storms, floods, drought, heat waves and wildfires are an imperative. One avenue to identify a dedicated source of federal revenue for resilience is to give this task to the State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness created by president’s climate plan. Its State Task Force should estimate the total cost of extreme weather resilience needs, as well as identify a source or sources of federal revenue to assist communities with these huge costs. A federal investment in resilience should reduce net federal spending in the long run because stronger communities mean less damage from extreme weather — and subsequently, less federal disaster-relief aid. This omission is a major hole in an otherwise extremely valuable Sandy Task Force rebuilding strategy.