Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR); Roger Kennedy, former Director, National Park Service; James Lee Witt, former Director, Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA); Michael Buckley, Acting Deputy Director, FEMA; Philippa Strum, Wilson Center; participants from American Institute of Architects, American Planning Association, American Society of Civil Engineers, Association of State Floodplain Managers, Institute for Water Resources, National Fire Protection Association, National Wildlife Federation, Public Entity Risk Institute, Taxpayers for Common Sense, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey.

In April 2004, the office of Rep. Earl Blumenauer and the Division of U.S. Studies held a meeting at the Wilson Center to examine the problem of disaster mitigation and to assess current federal policies in the area. The April 2005 roundtable brought together stakeholders in the disaster mitigation policy field to continue the conversation and to discuss possible new policies.

Congressman Blumenauer began the meeting, which took place in the Cannon House Office Building, by commenting that disaster mitigation policy may be one of the few policy areas that holds the promise of bipartisan support in the current Congress. The numerous recent disasters (such as four hurricanes in Florida and the tsunami in Southeast Asia) have put disaster mitigation on the agenda of both politicians and the public. Philippa Strum then reviewed some of the points made at the 2004 meeting. U.S. building patterns have exacerbated the problem of natural disasters by, e.g., removing natural safeguards such as wetlands. Natural disasters have psychological and social costs (e.g., increased levels of domestic abuse) in addition to the economic ones, and there is a need both for public education and for coalitions of environmentalists, insurers, business interests, and advocates for park and recreation sources. The participants in the 2004 meeting concluded that while 75% of American households are at risk from natural disasters because of development without regard for those risks, federal policies are both insufficient and counterproductive.

Roger Kennedy put the problem in historical focus by noting that major disasters of the 19th century took place primarily in the East and Midwest, with states such as Vermont, Maine, Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan experiencing deaths from fires in areas where massive lumbering occurred. Current climatic changes have increased the danger of natural disasters in those and other parts of the country, so the problem should not be misperceived as one only of the western states. Unfortunately, current federal and local governmental policies promote population movement to high risk areas. James Lee Witt added an international perspective by reporting on popular reactions to rebuilding in areas affected by the recent tsunami where, for example, fisherman are resisting efforts to rebuild homes that are 1500 meters from the ocean and separated from the ocean by trees, because of their resultant inability to pull their boats close to their houses. A similar insistence on replicating that which has been destroyed exists in the U.S., Witt noted, where rebuilding routinely takes place in floodplains and where FEMA policy was for a long time focused on putting back the kinds of structures and infrastructure that existed earlier rather than on paying for more disaster-resistant building. The economic consequences are substantial. During the 1990s, FEMA spent more than $25 billion on declared disasters and emergencies.

Michael Buckley reported that FEMA now tries to emphasize prevention policies, although it still has an important post-disaster function. Current FEMA policies include the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program, which invites applications from state and local governments for federal funds that will enable them to implement hazard mitigation planning. The Flood Mitigation Assistance Program requires states seeking FEMA funding to prepare mitigation plans, and all 50 states have now done so. FEMA awarded $94 million in grants for disaster mitigation in 2004. Buckley noted that new retroactive legislation has ended the taxing of income from disaster mitigation grants, which encourages competition for them.

The ideas suggested by participants included:

  • Creating a data bank that would break down disaster costs by, e.g., wind damage, floods, and landslides. This would enable governments to plan and would aid in public education.
  • Enforcing building codes in rural areas more stringently.
  • Setting national standards for the assessment of risks.
  • Eliminating the mortgage interest deduction on tax returns for post-disaster rebuilding in hazardous areas, and discouraging mortgages for building or rebuilding in such areas.
  • Eliminating federal disaster funds for communities that permit rebuilding in risk areas.
  • Eliminating FEMA funding for rebuilding infrastructure after a disaster if the rebuilding does not include appropriate disaster mitigation planning.
  • Encouraging localities to end municipal services (trash collection, water lines) to discourage rebuilding in high risk areas, and encouraging states and localities to end the practice of giving tax deductions for building in high risk areas.
  • Developing incentives for states and municipalities to develop in high benefit areas.
  • Adding the requirement of an annual approved disaster mitigation plan for communities seeking federal Community Development Block Grants.
  • Establishing a rating system for community disaster mitigation plans that could be used in determining the cost-share for Army Corps of Engineers flood damage reduction programs.
  • Creating a federal mitigation management team to advise communities in disaster mitigation planning.
  • Increasing the percentage of FEMA's budget spent on disaster mitigation from 7.5% to 10-15%.
  • Encouraging public/private partnerships by creating a matching grant program, within FEMA, that would bring back the successful Project Impact.
  • Creating "boilerplate" disaster mitigation planning language to insert in various pieces of pending legislation.
  • Moving FEMA (or its disaster mitigation responsibilities) out of the Department of Homeland Security and giving it independent status.

    Copies of Rep. Blumenauer's proposed "Safe Communities Act of 2005," which highlights disaster mitigation planning, were distributed, and the participants were invited to submit comments on it as well as additional ideas. As Rep. Blumenauer noted, securing adequate disaster mitigation policies will take time, but they inevitably will be recognized as necessary. The question is how long that will take and what can be done to move the process forward.

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