Tag Archives: disaster rebuilding

More money for FEMA does not guarantee improved results

Before Congress passed $9.7 billion in Hurricane Sandy relief spending today, Governor Christie made headlines for his angry response to the House GOP’s delay in approving relief funds. The new spending will provide FEMA with money to pay out claims to those holding federal flood insurance. While the Hurricane Sandy relief effort gives political immediacy to FEMA funding, the Center for American Progress proposes a longer term strategy for dealing with natural disasters:

There must  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 carbon pollution responsible for climate change.

The perspective that disaster recovery is a core responsibility of the federal government is widely shared, and voices as diverse as Governor Christie to the Center for American Progress express this opinion. However, the Mercatus Center’s Gulf Coast Recovery Project conducted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina demonstrates that funneling federal dollars toward disaster relief does not guarantee positive results for disaster victims. While the FEMA response to Hurricane Sandy went more smoothly than the Hurricane Katrina response, the federal government simply doesn’t have the capability to respond quickly and efficiently to individuals’ needs following a disaster, and channeling more resources to FEMA from any revenue source will not change the this fact.

As Pete Leeson and Russ Sobel write in a 2007 paper (pdf):

Following a natural disaster, on the one side there are “relief demanders”—individuals who desperately need disaster-relief supplies, including evacuation, food, shelter, medical attention, and so forth. On the other side, there are “relief suppliers”—individuals ready and willing to bring their supplies and expertise to bear in meeting the relief demanders’ needs. On both sides of this “market,” information is decentralized, local, and often inarticulate. Relief demanders know when relief is needed, what they need, and in what quantities, but they do not necessarily know who has the relief supplies they require or how to obtain them. Similarly, relief suppliers know what relief supplies they have and how they can help, but they may be largely unaware of whether relief is required and, if it is, what is needed, by whom, and in what locations and quantities.

[. . .]

Government’s informational deficit in the disaster-relief context is an unavoidable outcome of the centralization of disaster relief management when relief is provided by the state. Disaster-relief reforms that leave government as the primary manager of natural disasters are thus bound to fail. Correcting government’s information failure in the context of disaster relief requires eliminating its root cause: government involvement itself.

Researchers on the Gulf Coast Recovery Project found that non-profits, civic organizationsprivate firms, and individuals were more successful at providing the goods and services needed for recovery than the federal government.

Aside from the inherent challenges facing federal disaster response, funneling federal tax dollars to coastal areas prone to flooding leads to moral hazard. Because residents of flood-prone areas purchase federal insurance, taxpayers subsidize those who choose to live in these high-risk areas. Eli Lehrer of the R Street Institute explains this aspect of the Hurricane Sandy Relief Bill to Climate Wire:

“The mitigation piece of it is problematic,” said Eli Lehrer, president of the R Street Institute, a conservative organization that works with environmentalists and insurers to reduce subsidies in public insurance programs. “I think the bill should be drastically scaled back overall.”

He suggests that the disaster supplemental package could be cut in half. That would save taxpayer money, he says, now and in the future — by reducing incentives to develop coastlines. Lehrer also proposes cutting the federal share of post-disaster rebuilding costs to 50 percent. Currently, the government pays for 75 percent of recovery efforts, and Obama is asking Congress to increase that to 90 percent for Sandy survivors.

Politicians and activists who support a large role for the federal government in responding to disasters may have the best of intentions, but these intentions cannot circumvent the knowledge problems that government faces in disaster relief. By reducing the cost of developing in flood plains, greater reliance on the federal government for disaster mitigation and relief will be a costly effort unlikely to provide an adequate response when the next disaster strikes.

Hurricane Season Begins

Today is the first day of the 2010 hurricane season, which NOAA predicts will be more active than usual, with 14 to 23 named storms. (In fairness, NOAA has been way off the mark in recent years, to the relief of the residents of the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.)

The Mercatus Center’s Gulf Coast Recovery Project has put out over 50 studies since 2005 looking at the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. Below are links to eight studies that state and local policy makers may find useful today and in the coming months.

  • A Policy Maker’s Guide to Effective Disaster Preparedness and Response. In the years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region of the United States, scholars, policy makers, and concerned citizens have been working to understand what exactly went wrong in the response to the event and how better to prepare for future natural disasters. Post-Katrina New Orleans presents a unique opportunity to study how and how not to undertake the rebuilding of a major population center after such a catastrophe. Proper study of this subject, if conducted objectively and rigorously, will not only save other communities countless dollars but will also save lives.
  • Building a Safe Port in the Storm: Public vs Private Choices in Hurricane Mitigation. This Policy Comment analyzes the connection between hurricane mitigation and insurance. As many people fail to purchase government-subsidized flood and earthquake insurance, some researchers argue that market failure explains the lack of mitigation. But empirical evidence shows that markets do value natural hazards risks, including hurricane mitigation, and thus the case for market failure has been overstated.
  • The Entrepreneur’s Role in Post-Disaster Community Recovery. This Policy Primer recommends that in the aftermath of a disaster, government relax non-disaster regulations in order to allow entrepreneurs, who are in the best position to assess local conditions and needs in the rapidly changing, post-disaster environment, to step in and quickly respond to the community’s needs.
  • The Road Home: Helping Homeowners in the Gulf Post-Katrina. This comment explores Road Home’s policy goals and design, placing them in the context of the destruction wrought by the hurricanes and the role of insurance and government before and after a disaster. It then contrasts Road Home’s goals and design with the policy goals and design of Mississippi’s Homeowner Assistance Program.
  • Disastrous Uncertainty: How Government Disaster Policy Undermines Community Rebound. This Policy Comment looks at the ways in which public policy has had negative unintended consequences on the ability of communities to make informed decisions about sustainable rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.  Based on fieldwork, the authors explain why social capital and signals generated by market and civil interactions are important to recovery efforts and how policy makers can encourage rather than retard grassroots rebuilding efforts.
  • Making Hurricane Response More Effective: Lessons from the Private Sector and the Coast Guard During Katrina. Many assume that the only viable option for emergency response and recovery from a natural disaster is one that is centrally directed. However, highlighted by the poor response from the federal government and the comparatively effective response from private retailers and the Coast Guard after Hurricane Katrina, this assumption seems to be faulty. Big box retailers such as Wal-Mart were extraordinarily successful in providing help to damaged communities in the days, weeks, and months after the storm. This Policy Comment provides a framework for understanding why private retailers and the Coast Guard mounted an effective response in the Gulf Coast region.
  • Ensuring Disaster: State Insurance Regulation, Coastal Development, and Hurricanes. This policy comment examines how state insurance regulation affects societal vulnerability to hurricanes. States provide insurance for high-risk properties at below market rates primarily through insurance pools. Seven states, including Louisiana and Mississippi, have wind pools, with over 1.8 million policies and a total liability of over $500 billion as of early 2007. Wind pools are financed, in part, through additional charges on other citizens’ premiums throughout the state to cover excess losses from hurricanes. State guaranty funds, which ensure payment of claims of insolvent insurers, also subsidize high-risk properties.

For more information about these studies or to request hard copies, feel free to email me using the link here.

Disaster Response and Foreclosure

According to the AP, FEMA is exploring how to use foreclosed homes to house people displaced by future natural disasters:

The federal government is exploring how to put Florida hurricane evacuees in foreclosed homes if a Katrina-like storm devastates the region and shelters, hotels and other housing options are full, The Associated Press has learned.

Officials told AP on Tuesday that it is an effort to find some benefit in the foreclosure crisis and keep people close to their homes and communities instead of scattering them around the country, which happened when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and other parts of coastal Louisiana and Mississippi almost four years ago. Thousands of victims who lost their homes in the storm moved to Houston, Atlanta and other cities, and many never returned.