Political Will and Creative Approaches Needed for Future Disasters Demands

Just like the head and tail of a coin, there are two sides to every disaster—providing help to those who need it and paying for that assistance. It’s a tug-of-war that’s becoming more contentious every year. Federal law requires assistance in times of disasters, but as threats grow in complexity—possible infrastructure failures, vulnerabilities from electromagnetic pulses and unforeseen consequences from hydraulic fracturing to name a few—the burden of marshalling the necessary resources and funding is an ongoing struggle.

On Sept. 11, 2001, a seismic shift occurred in the United States, one that challenged former assumptions, validated others and significantly altered priorities under the mantle of a changing world view. As the current presidential administration winds down and a new one assumes control in 2017, questions remain: What will be the next devastating incident? How will the new leadership manage it? Will it be a negative example of how something shouldn’t be done? Or will future actions be the result of a disaster management structure that is adroit, adaptable and fiscally responsible? With coordination among all the key players—federal, state, tribal, local, private sector, non-profits and academia—this kind of thoughtful and resilient system is more than a pipe dream. It’s the answer to providing aid and being able to pay for it.

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About the Author
Beverly Bell is the policy and program manager for the National Emergency Management Association, an affiliate of The Council of State Governments. She assists in national policy coordination and grant implementation, while also conducting research and acting as an information clearinghouse for emergency management and homeland security issues.


How to Handle Rising Disaster Costs
In the 2013 Sandy Recovery Improvement Act, the U.S. Congress required the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to address rising disaster costs. As background, the Disaster Relief Fund is the main account used by the federal government to pay for disaster response and recovery. Managed by FEMA, the fund provides a wide variety of grants and other support to state and local governments, as well as various nonprofit entities. Congress has traditionally appropriated money to maintain the Disaster Relief Fund, or DRF, at a certain level, and then provided additional financing for assistance through supplemental appropriations following a specific large disaster. For the last several years, Congress, the Government Accountability Office, the Office of Management and Budget, and others have expressed concerns over rising disaster costs.

FEMA’s latest response to tackle the problem is a proposal adding a deductible to the FEMA Public Assistance—or PA—Program. The PA program is designed specifically to help states, tribes, jurisdictions and certain private non-profit organizations after a presidentially declared disaster. It’s a multi-billion dollar program paid out of the DRF and has the potential to impact every government and every jurisdiction throughout the country. The deductible proposal would function like a typical homeowner’s insurance policy, requiring states to meet a certain financial commitment before qualifying for federal assistance. The deductible could be offset with credits the states would be given for mitigation and resiliency investments. 

States have identified several key issues with the concept. For example, the deductible concept can’t simply shift the financial burden of disasters to states, local jurisdictions, tribes, etc. It shouldn’t result in ever-increasing and onerous administrative burdens, requiring more state and local personnel, more expense, and more bureaucracy. There must be ample time for implementation, both for FEMA and the states. For FEMA, this means full development of the concept, internal education and training, and the creation of understandable and consistent guidance for the states. On the state level, it will require enough time for state legislatures to be thoroughly briefed on the new requirements and plan through their budgetary cycles for additional deductible responsibilities. States also will need time for training of state personnel as well as all sub-grantees. Most importantly, any change in the program can’t result in delayed assistance to those in need.

Flexible Federal Grant Funding
Politicians often call out the inefficient use of public funds. However, when it comes to the difficult task of breaking down silo grant funding, they give up because of constituent backlash. The current state of grant funding has too many programs with too many restrictions and too little funding. Several years ago, the state emergency management community put forward an idea for streamlining the grant structure. It would have allowed stakeholders to work together in identifying and prioritizing the risks to a state or region, and engage in comprehensive planning to apply the grants to buy down that risk while building long-term capabilities. Given the current fiscal and political climate, such a model is still a viable and responsible alternative. Flexible grants that include transparency and accountability allow more deliberate and cohesive planning. 

National Flood Insurance Program Still in Jeopardy
Despite recent attempts to address its serious fiscal problems, the National Flood Insurance Program, or NFIP, remains $23 billion in debt. Created in 1968, this federal program provides insurance to property owners as well as businesses located in communities that are part of the NFIP. All participants agree to adopt and enforce floodplain ordinances in exchange for insurance. For years, however, policy costs have not reflected true actuarial rates. This, coupled with a decline in enrollment and revenue, as well as large payouts from recent hurricanes such as Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, has left the program dangerously underfunded. Exacerbating the situation is that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has updated flood maps to provide a more accurate picture, but some of these have been redrawn because of political pressures. Putting the NFIP on solid financial footing, along with educating citizens about the real risks of floods where they live and work, is vital to the long-term economic viability of communities faced with this hazard.

Extreme Weather Adaptation
In recent years, emergency managers have witnessed more severe and more frequent weather events. They have seen ice storms and tornadoes in the same day. These extremes represent a new normal—one that calls for a broad, inclusive approach to planning along with adequate funding to support the effort. As more states manage massive wildland fires, prolonged and repetitive flooding, and more dangerous hurricanes, adaptation planning with all subject matter experts at the table is required. This includes emergency management, which is best suited for evaluating the consequences and impacts of these serious hazards. In addition, emergency management can provide valuable expertise at the nexus of land-use questions and potential disasters.

Emergency management includes four main parts, referred to as the Four Pillars:

  • Mitigation—Activities that reduce or eliminate the degree of risk to human life and property;
  • Preparedness—Activities that take place before a disaster to develop and maintain a capability to respond rapidly and effectively to emergencies and disasters;
  • Response—Activities to assess and contain the immediate effects of disasters, provide life support to victims and deliver emergency services; and
  • Recovery—Activities to restore damaged facilities and equipment, and support the economic and social revitalization of affected areas to their pre-emergency status. 

On the state level, these four elements encompass many different aspects, from planning and implementation to training and exercises. A state emergency manager will interact with all sectors of the population, including other state agencies, elected officials, local jurisdictions, all public safety personnel, the private sector, volunteer organizations and the general public.

State Emergency Management Organizational Structure, Budgets and Staff
States use a variety of structures when it comes to the emergency management function. In 16 states, the emergency management office is located within the state military department under the auspices of the adjutant general. Twelve states have it in the public safety department. In 10 states it’s housed in the governor’s office and in 12 states it’s located in a combined emergency management / homeland security agency. The remaining states use other organizational structures.

Regardless of how an agency’s daily operations are organized, most governors make the final decision on who serves as the state emergency management director. The governor appoints the state emergency management director in 34 states.

The majority of states—34—combine their emergency management and homeland security full-time equivalent positions. The total number of full-time equivalents for these states is 3,945 and averages 116 staff per state. For those states that have a stand-alone emergency management office, FTE positions total 1,966, averaging about 103 per state. Agency operating budgets for the 2016 fiscal year range up to $141 million, with the average state agency budget at approximately $9 million, while the median is about $3.2 million.

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State Homeland Security Funding and Responsibilities
The State Homeland Security Grant Program is a central federal source that supports and sustains state and local government homeland security capabilities. For fiscal year 2016, it’s funded at $402 million. Eighteen states rely solely on those federal grants to fund their homeland security offices. This represents an increase from 2015, when 15 states depended totally on federal grants. Thirty-nine states receive at least 60 percent of their funding for their state homeland security office from federal sources, down from 42 percent in 2015. On average, states rely on 74.5 percent federal funding, 21.3 percent state appropriations and 4.2 percent from other sources to pay for their homeland security function.

When it comes to the state homeland security offices, responsibilities and organizational structures vary from state to state. In some cases, state homeland security directors manage grants and budgets; in others, they have very limited roles. In 19 states, a combined emergency management/homeland security office oversees daily operations of the homeland security function. Fifteen states keep the homeland security function in their public safety department and seven states have it in the adjutant general/military affairs department. Six states run it out of the governor’s office. The rest  of the states have other organizational structures for their homeland security function.

On the Horizon
On-Going Public Health Dangers
The Zika virus came to the public health forefront in the U.S. in 2015 with an outbreak in South America and Mexico. There are now confirmed cases of the virus, which causes birth defects, in almost every state. This latest infectious disease highlights the crucial relationship between state emergency management and health departments. These two critical agencies have been working more closely together since the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. Those efforts resulted in improved information sharing and coordination that played a key role in managing the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the largest in the disease’s history, which resulted in four infections and one death in the U.S. The Ebola scare was followed in 2015 by the Highly Pathogenic Avian Flu. Twenty-one states reported an outbreak in their domestic bird population and an unprecedented loss in the poultry industry occurred with the death of millions of animals. These examples show that public health risks can’t be isolated to one particular country or region of the world. As a result, infectious diseases represent another area of responsibility that requires emergency management—along with their public health partners—to plan for and address. 

Proactive Instead of Reactive
Mitigation represents one of the best methods in achieving resiliency while reducing the impact of future disasters. However, it has often been at the end of a typical disaster cycle, something to be tackled after the disaster has occurred and following significant response and recovery expenditures. The ideal approach places a more robust mitigation program at the beginning, before a disaster takes place. It anticipates the protection of critical infrastructure and provides incentives for the adoption and enforcement of effective building codes under an umbrella of long-term needs, clearly formulated by a community.

Understanding the Total Picture
All of the mentioned elements—the NFIP, climate change, public health threats, disaster funding, mitigation investment—are not disparate pieces. The NFIP is inexorably linked to increased flooding and sea level risings created by climate change. Climate change issues such as drought and lack of food and potable water can result in increased public health emergencies. These events and all disasters exert more pressure on the federal budget and disaster funding mechanisms such as the DRF. A greater focus on mitigation allows smarter planning and better consequence management. The different factors demand problem solving that acknowledges the entire picture, making the most of common resources and synergetic opportunities. 

  Download "Table B: Homeland Security Structures" in PDF / E-Reader Compatible Format