Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR); Janet Abramovitz, author of Unnatural Disasters; Roger Kennedy, Director Emeritus, National Museum of American History; Harvey G. Ryland, President, Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS); Jim Schwab, American Planning Association (APA); Andre LeDuc, Coordinator, Oregon Natural Hazards Workgroup; Archibald C. (Trey) Reid III, Deputy Director, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Why is it that, in an era so aware of the need for preventative national defense and preparedness, so little is being done to mitigate the effects of natural disasters? The questions of where and when natural disasters are likely to occur in this country, what current federal policy in the area exists, and how best to encourage both governmental and public awareness and preparedness in defense against natural disasters were addressed at the conference on disaster mitigation cosponsored by the Division of United States Studies and the office of Congressman Earl Blumenauer on April 27.

Congressman Blumenauer opened the discussion by noting that 75% of American households are currently at risk from natural disasters, located in areas where "God has repeatedly shown that they are not wanted." While climate change has exacerbated the danger of disasters, the core problem is development without regard for its impact on susceptibility to disastrous natural phenomena. The challenge is to build disaster resistant communities, as it is virtually impossible to build in ways that are truly disaster proof. Unfortunately, current federal policy is counterproductive. It treats disaster response funds as "free money," exempt from budget balancing considerations, while funding for disaster mitigation must come from zero-sum funding allocations. There is no current incentive for communities to fund mitigation efforts; preventing disasters costs them money but the federal government gives them the funds to deal with disaster recovery. The country needs a comprehensive national disaster mitigation policy, he declared, and individuals have to assume responsibility for taking steps to minimize the effects of disasters. Prevention work can be financed from the funds the country would no longer have to expend on dealing with the consequences of natural disasters. "There is a notion that we can change nature," Rep. Blumenauer said, but we cannot: we must change the way we interact with it if we are to minimize the loss of property and lives.

Janet Abramovitz told the audience that today, more people around the world are impacted by disaster than by conflict. Because of the kinds of development in which the United States has engaged, floods so large that they were expected only once every hundred years are becoming regular occurrences. Abramovitz encouraged rethinking about where and how to build, in part by improving hazard mapping and providing better information to insurance companies and homebuyers. Roger Kennedy seconded Abramovitz's recommendations, noting that "there are no disasters where there are no people" and that "the problem is not with nature but with people in the wrong places." Current development patterns in the United States increase the incidence of these disasters by removing natural safeguards such as wetlands. An increasing number of Americans live in flood and fire danger zones, which tend to be more aesthetically attractive as well as more dangerous. This shift leads to a greater need for disaster mitigation on the part of the federal government.

Trey Reid talked about new federal disaster mitigation programs, including a publicity campaign for federal flood insurance, disincentives for building on land negatively impacted by flood or fire twice in ten years, and map modernization. By buying or relocating homes too regularly affected by natural disasters and by providing accurate and up-to-date maps of disaster probabilities, FEMA hopes to assist homeowners in assuring the safety of their property. FEMA also has a new program of $150 million in competitive Predisaster Mitigation grants. The government could do more to obviate the need for disaster remediation, however, by putting greater resources into mitigation and prevention. He noted that public disinterest in mediation continues to be a major impediment to these efforts. Harvey Ryland said that mitigation policies would not only eliminate or reduce the financial costs of rebuilding after disasters but would also address psychological and social costs, such as the increased levels of domestic abuse, that follow natural disasters and the resultant dislocation and other stress. Ryland emphasized maintenance as well as intelligent choices about where and how buildings are erected, because without appropriate upkeep, even safe structures can become dangerous.

Both Jim Schwab, who discussed current APA and FEMA programs for training communities, and Andre LeDuc, who spoke of innovative work being done by public-private partnerships in Oregon, emphasized the need for public education. The panelists agreed that it is difficult to get the attention of homeowners and to convince them they should take the complicated and/or expensive steps that will protect their homes from disasters that may never occur. They agreed as well that there are significant perverse incentives, such as public bailouts and lower property values, that encourage development in disaster-prone areas. Rep. Blumenauer criticized the conflation of economic development with land development, stressing that economic development does not necessarily require the development of previously unused land.

The conference ended with a discussion of the coalitions that can be built in support of disaster mitigation efforts, drawing together environmentalists, insurers, business interests, and advocates for park and recreation resources. Until we "change how we count the beans," Rep. Blumenauer predicted, any alteration in the way the United States deals with natural disasters will remain nearly impossible. But given the types of coalitions suggested by participants and implied by their attendance at the meeting, he is optimistic that a coherent and articulate force can be formed to bring about that fundamental and vitally needed shift.

Drafted by Ann Chernicoff

Philippa Strum, Director of U.S. Studies (202) 691-4129