The outpouring of help from emergency responders, volunteers and fellow citizens for victims of the recent hurricanes and wildfires is testament to our nation’s immense capacity for compassion and sacrifice in the face of disaster. But as impacts persist in California, Florida, Puerto Rico, Texas, and the Virgin Islands, we must confront the inescapable conclusion that our infrastructure and policies for disaster response, relief, and resilience are not up to the task.
Some models predict that extraordinarily destructive hurricanes and massive wildfires will become a new normal and all levels of government should prepare accordingly. Unfortunately, existing federal programs create irrational incentives that will result in needless future harm and billions in avoidable costs to taxpayers.
A principal reason for our complex and inefficient system is that funding for disaster response and recovery is “off-budget,” meaning the funds are not counted against discretionary spending limits and therefore not required to be offset by spending reductions in other programs. Congress’ decision to be repeatedly surprised by predictable events hides the true cost of disaster spending, thus diminishing the incentive to evaluate the scope of the problem and undertake effective reforms. As Utah Sen. Mike Lee said recently, “Instead of helping victims of these disasters through responsible aid paired with lasting reform, Congress has rushed to its favorite solution: billions in new spending.”
Over the last decade, extreme weather and wildfire events have cost the federal government more than $350 billion, with most estimates predicting much higher costs going forward.