The tragic and devastating superstorm Sandy is only the latest in a long list of extreme weather events that have devastated the United States in recent years. In the past two years alone, we suffered from at least 21 floods, droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and severe storms that each caused at least $1 billion in damages. These events took at least 1,021 lives and caused up to $174 billion in total damages.
Many scientists believe that extreme weather events will grow in frequency and/or severity over the coming decades due to climate change. Yet our communities remain vulnerable to them, putting our citizens and our economy at risk. Middle- and lower-income households are frequently affected by these events at disproportionate rates.
To help communities reduce their vulnerability to extreme weather, we propose the creation of a “community resilience fund,” dedicated solely to providing financial and technical assistance to vulnerable communities hit by extreme weather events. With Congress about to debate funding for disaster relief for the states most affected by Sandy, it may be even harder to convince some members of Congress to support revenue to reduce damages from future storms and other extreme weather events. We therefore urge President Barack Obama to appoint a bipartisan, blue-ribbon panel to design this dedicated fund and to identify and recommend ways to pay for it.
Here’s why we need a community resilience fund, as well as the proposal to establish a panel to design it.
Extreme weather related to climate change is the new normal
The United States has experienced extremely high numbers of devastating floods, heavy storms, droughts, heat waves, and wildfires over the past few years. In 2010 the president made a record 81 “major disaster declarations,” which enable states damaged from extreme weather events to seek federal disaster assistance. This was more than twice as many as the annual average over the previous 60 years.
In 2011 the agency made 99 major disaster declarations—a new record. This year, Climate Central reports that, “For the third straight season, there were 19 named storms in the Atlantic, which is the third-highest level of storm activity observed since 1851.” Sandy was the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, surpassed only by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Climate change will continue to increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. Kevin E. Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, recently noted that:
All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.
The warm moist air is readily advected onto land and caught up in weather systems as part of the hydrological cycle, where it contributes to more intense precipitation events that are widely observed to be occurring.
For more on the link between climate change and extreme weather, see our recent report, “Heavy Weather: How Climate Destruction Harms Middle- and Lower-Income Americans.”
Tristate governors seek funds for Sandy recovery, future resilience efforts
The costs of extreme weather have become abundantly clear in the wake of superstorm Sandy. In order to repair and rebuild their states, Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) have requested a total of $62 billion from the federal government for recovery. Together, Gov. Christie and Gov. Cuomo, along with Gov. Dan Malloy (D-CT), requested an additional combined $20 billion to make their states more resilient to future severe storms and other extreme weather. President Obama supports providing $60.4 billion of the total request right now, but Congress must appropriate these funds before it adjourns for the year.
In the aftermath of Sandy, Gov. Cuomo observed that, “Part of learning from this [disaster] is the recognition that climate change is a reality.” Gov. Malloy similarly noted that, “Changing weather patterns are a reality, and we must assume that the worst Mother Nature can throw at us hasn’t happened yet.”
Govs. Cuomo and Malloy plan to use proposed resiliency funding packages to build more resilient infrastructure that is better prepared to handle future extreme weather events. These projects include protecting New York City’s subway system and fortifying the coastline against future storm surges. The two governors are also seeking upgraded power transmission since “Sandy caused 8.5 million power outages across 21 states,” according to the Associated Press.
President Obama’s request to Congress for $60.4 billion for Sandy relief included investments for resiliency to future extreme weather. The administration emphasized the need “to build a more resilient nation prepared to face both current and future challenges, including a changing climate.”
The request outlined specific funding needs, including a number of resiliency projects that would help protect residents from these states from the next massive storm:
- $5.5 billion to the Federal Transit Administration to harden transportation infrastructure and increase resiliency for future storms
- Nearly $1 billion for flood mitigation and coastal resiliency through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Fish and Wildlife Service
- $15 billion for the Community Development Fund that would allow damaged municipalities to decide where funding is most needed for both recovery and resiliency
- $11.5 billion to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for response and recovery for disaster victims, as well as for rebuilding public infrastructure and hazard mitigation
On December 17 the Senate began debate on a $60.4 billion emergency supplemental appropriation based on the president’s request for these and other recovery and resiliency efforts for the tristate area: New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. Congress should pass this aid before it adjourns for the winter recess.
Congressional politics may prohibit progress for disaster-prevention efforts
Some members of Congress understand the growing need for resiliency efforts, as climate change will lead to more severe extreme weather events.
At a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on Sandy recovery, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) referred to climate change as “the elephant in this room,” adding that infrastructure protection is a priority due to the likely increase in extreme weather. During a similar hearing in the Senate, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) called for infrastructure improvements, including upgrades to the electric grid.
Yet some in Congress are reluctant to provide the requested assistance to the states devastated by Sandy. On December 11 The Hill reported that, “Republicans argued Tuesday that the Obama administration has not provided enough evidence that its $60.4 billion request in Hurricane Sandy aid is needed.” Some congressional Republicans want to offset this disaster recovery spending, which differs from past practice.
Vulnerable communities need an effective extreme weather resilience program
Federal spending for disaster relief and recovery will only increase as extreme weather events become more intense and/or frequent.
Evan Mills of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory recently warned that losses from climate-related extreme weather have grown:
Increasingly, multifaceted weather- and climate-related insurance losses involve property damage, business disruptions, health impacts, and legal claims against polluters. Worldwide, insured claims that were paid for weather catastrophes average $50 billion/year. … (They have more than doubled each decade since the 1980s, adjusted for inflation).
Former senior Federal Emergency Management Agency officials Jane Bullock and George Haddow recommend the creation of a “national fund to promote and financially support hazard mitigation activities.” This revenue should be based on “the average of the past several years” of postdisaster federal spending for recovery. Over the past three years, the annual average would have been $7.1 billion.
This is a large amount of money at a time when there is bipartisan support for cuts in federal domestic discretionary spending. Nonetheless, such an investment in prevention could save billions of dollars more in disaster recovery and repair. Haddow notes that, “This level of investment is needed and will pay big dividends in terms of economic development, community vitality and growth, and environmental protection and restoration.”
The most effective way to protect vulnerable communities is to adequately fund the planning and implementation of “predisaster mitigation,” or resilience measures. Communities should evaluate their risk from various events and develop appropriate resiliency plans with technical and financial assistance from the federal government.
This approach should be a partnership among local, state, and federal governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations. While there are multiple programs under the Federal Emergency Management Agency for postdisaster rebuilding and hazard mitigation, they should be consolidated under one resilience-focused entity.
President Bill Clinton started and President George W. Bush stopped vital predisaster mitigation program
The first predisaster mitigation program—Project Impact—was created under then-Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt in 1997. It provided financial and technical support to make communities more disaster resistant. Project Impact’s original budget of $25 million provided varying degrees of funding to 225 communities to help them identify risks and the measures to mitigate them. Communities secured the financial and public support needed to implement the mitigation measures. Former Federal Emergency Management Agency Deputy Director George Haddow noted that, “This was the kind of program that local communities wanted. The receptivity to the idea was incredible.”
Unfortunately, President George W. Bush eliminated Project Impact in 2002. Its successor was a confusing and competitive grant-based program with funding often determined by politics instead of need. After increasing annual funding to $150 million, the Congressional Research Service reported that Congress began earmarking grants to specific projects based on influence rather than on communities’ need.
Additionally, congressional appropriations for predisaster mitigation have been decreasing even as natural disaster costs have increased. In the past two years, Congress allocated only a combined $85.5 million for predisaster mitigation, though there were $174 billion in damages from the most destructive events.
President Obama should create a blue-ribbon panel to recommend revenue dedicated to disaster resilience
At a 2011 hearing of the subcommittee on Disaster Recovery and Intergovernmental Affairs, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) noted that, “It is critical that our nation find a sustainable method to finance disaster risk for all segments of the population.”
To ensure that communities have these resources, there should be a dedicated source of revenue to fund predisaster mitigation programs that is not susceptible to budget cuts or political manipulation. Since the frequency and/or severity of extreme weather events will be exacerbated by climate change, it makes sense to raise revenue for resiliency from the fossil fuels whose combustion emits the carbon pollution responsible for climate change. Here are some potential revenue sources and the amounts they would have raised in 2012:
The debate over congressional passage of Sandy recovery assistance for New Jersey and New York raises serious doubts about whether Congress will help communities reduce future damages. The adoption of one of these—or other—revenue sources would undoubtedly spark controversy, particularly among those legislators who deny that climate change is real or caused by human activity.
Rather than let such vital predisaster mitigation efforts become mired in congressional politics, therefore, President Obama should appoint a bipartisan blue-ribbon panel to devise a plan to help communities become more resilient to damage from extreme weather. Panel members should come from states and communities that recently suffered from severe extreme weather events. This could include, for instance, a governor from a state suffering from the record drought, a mayor whose city was flooded, first responders from a town hit by tornados, utility executives whose electricity transmission was severely disrupted, and business and nongovernmental organization leaders who assisted with recovery.
This blue-ribbon panel should be given a short window of time to produce a carefully focused report that:
- Calculates federal expenditures on disaster relief and recovery over the past several years by type of extreme weather event
- Estimates the cost of the financial support that communities need to adequately devise and implement plans to increase their resilience to floods, severe storms, droughts, and other extreme weather events
- Recommends a secure revenue stream to provide resources for predisaster mitigation planning
- Establishes eligibility criteria for applications for revenue from this fund
As with other such panels or commissions, these leaders can then become strong advocates to urge Congress to adopt their recommendations.
The recent onslaught of extreme weather related to climate change is unlikely to abate anytime soon, and most scientists believe it will only become worse. While it is essential that the United States and other nations reduce their industrial carbon pollution from power plants and other major sources, we must also lower communities’ vulnerability to future floods, severe storms, droughts, and wildfires. A bipartisan blue-ribbon panel appointed by the president could promptly recommend the most effective source of assured funding so that cities across the nation can better protect their residents and the infrastructure vital to our economy. Dedicated funding for predisaster mitigation will protect lives, shield middle- and lower-income households from the worst impacts of extreme weather, and save taxpayers money over time.
Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress. Jackie Weidman is a Special Assistant at the Center.