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Fundamental Priorities for Disaster Recovery Reform

While the battle against COVID-19 has been the primary focus of emergency management efforts in the U.S. over the past 12 months, we also witnessed one of the most active Atlantic hurricane seasons in memory, saw devasting wildfires in the west that turned skies orange, and watched as many communities suffered extreme weather events involving high winds, intense rain, flooding, and below freezing temperatures. For more than a few jurisdictions, response and recovery demands associated with these events came on top of a string of devasting disasters beginning in 2017 and 2018 with historic hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, Florence, and Michael, and various California wildfires.

All the difficulties of long-term disaster recovery that existed prior to the COVID-19 crisis continue to be present as states, local governments, territories, and tribal governments, or SLTTs, figure out strategies for addressing those needs while being stretched to the limit—sometimes beyond the limit—of their capabilities. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is at the center of those efforts, given reliance upon its Public Assistance program to finance post-disaster restoration of infrastructure and the National Flood Insurance Program that aids recovery for participating homeowners.

In 2018, Congress enacted the Disaster Recovery Reform Act, or DRRA, which contained program and policy changes focused on FEMA and the Stafford Act. While FEMA’s internal scorecard reflects that virtually all DRRA provisions have been implemented, the outcomes for some major components are likely to be a mixed bag. For instance, DRRA provided states and local governments the option to assume responsibility for post-disaster housing missions. However, uptake has been, and may continue to be, limited given the necessary pre-certification processes and the procurement and stringent cost guidelines that seem to hold states and local jurisdictions to a higher standard than FEMA. Alternatively, the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program has been well received in its inaugural grant cycle given its goal to harden community lifelines, its competitive structure, and a relatively reliable funding stream based upon a percentage of appropriations for FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund.

Yet, since DRRA was FEMA-centric, it failed to address the broader scope of problems with and potential improvements for federal disaster recovery assistance. This sort of full scope review is necessary to make improvements that will ultimately result in better outcomes and longer-term resilience. Many other federal agencies have roles in disaster response that vary depending on the supplemental funding made available by Congress and the policy preferences of different administrations.

Congress has shown no inclination to place all recovery eggs solely in FEMA’s basket, notwithstanding the multiple authorities present in the Stafford Act. While the availability of programs outside the FEMA orbit is unpredictable, there are indications that various congressional committees may focus on these uneven aspects of federal disaster recovery policy over the next 18 months. Numerous issues are ripe for this review and, as Congress and the new administration set their agendas, considering a few fundamentals is important before drilling down into programmatic details.

A central question is: What can be done to speed up federally assisted recovery efforts? Even when funding is available, too many communities have suffered economically and socially as the arc of recovery from the most significant disasters is pushing out well beyond a decade. To that end, any reform effort should advance several fundamental priorities:

Certainty of Funding: Federal disaster recovery funding is largely unpredictable outside of periodic contributions to FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund and credit subsidies for the Small Business Administration’s disaster loan programs. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery, CDBG-DR, program funding is supplemental and only triggered via administration request or congressional initiative. Moreover, funding for diverse agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Transit Administration, and the Department of Agriculture are often included in a supplemental package along with the occasional tax incentive, but it is hard to predict when such steps will be taken and what the level of aid will be because these decisions are not based on documented, data-driven estimates of need. Even FEMA is not immune to problems in securing funding for its Disaster Relief Fund, as there have been past occasions when it has been virtually tapped out. Across the board, Congress needs to consider pre-funding these needs to enable swifter post-disaster responses—having financial resources in hand would enable the timelier launch of recovery efforts.

Pre-Disaster Recovery Planning: For SLTTs to receive and make effective use of early federal assistance, there needs to be a stronger emphasis on planning for post-disaster recovery. In the wake of major disasters, it becomes clear that jurisdictions had given too little thought to complex, longer-term challenges, such as how to rebuild thousands of damaged or destroyed housing units. That lack of preparedness is extremely problematic as incidents of extreme weather and disaster increase—making once-in-a-lifetime, catastrophic events more likely in more communities. There are lots of tabletop exercises on immediate response needs but very limited focus on what is required for such events—for example, how best to meet the enormous housing needs following disasters like Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, and Maria, or the devastating 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed more than 14,000 housing units in and around Paradise, California. While FEMA funds some planning activities, a broader effort is warranted if we hope to see jurisdictions make greater strides earlier in their recovery timelines. Plans should include which federal agencies to involve, how the investment will be targeted (particularly between states and local governments), and what funding can be made available.

Reduced Federal Friction: When dealing with multiple federal agencies, jurisdictions have a lot of pain points. Often, SLTTs are required to reconcile different environmental review processes, coordinate procurement standards, address varying planning requirements, and deal with antiquated processes and IT systems. Improving execution and implementation around these longstanding hurdles may be best achieved in the context of disaster recovery reform but will yield benefits across a range of federal initiatives. This is an area ripe for bipartisan cooperation—members of both parties are eager to support quicker recoveries, reduce costs, and provide better returns on federal investment. The reward is not the same as cutting ribbons for projects, but expedited outcomes will be greatly appreciated by the public and, particularly, those responsible for managing recoveries.

Innovative Post-Disaster Housing: The availability of housing is critical to recovery. Getting people back into their homes and communities as soon as possible after a major disaster is essential to stabilizing the local economy. However, implementing a housing recovery that relies solely upon traditional stick-built methods costs significant time and money. Communities should understand the range of rapidly deployable housing options that can serve as a basis for permanent housing. As modular and panel construction techniques have improved, interim options are no longer limited to trailers: 3-D printing of housing is increasingly viable and standard 20- and 40-foot shipping containers can be arranged and modified to meet site-specific needs. Think of these options as beginning with a starter unit on a homeowner’s site that can then be expanded to accommodate household needs. Adoption of this approach has several prerequisites—enhancing state authority to act quickly, obtaining local buy-in for necessary building/zoning flexibilities, and stockpiling materials. Because FEMA and CDBG-DR financial resources arrive post-disaster, consideration should be given as to how federal resources can be amended to develop a rapid deployment housing stockpile for some of the nation’s most vulnerable places.

Equity Considerations: Equitable recovery has traditionally been a challenge. Lower income populations have fewer financial resources and, as a result, are more reliant on governmental assistance to address recovery needs. Concurrently, there are a host of federal civil rights and fair housing laws that impact the use of federal recovery funds. It is critical that the design and implementation of various response and recovery programs effectively address the needs of low-income communities and recognize how disasters can exacerbate longstanding economic and racial inequities. Points of friction often include:

  • Do repair and reconstruction needs associated with the rental housing stock receive the same consideration as single-family needs?
  • Do awards under FEMA’s Individual and Household Program adequately account for damage and losses suffered by renter households in comparison to homeowner losses?
  • Are public housing recovery needs being adequately addressed and in a timely manner?
  • Will buyout programs be implemented to ensure lower income areas prone to flooding receive appropriate funding shares and provide compensation adequate to remain in the community?
  • Do low-income and minority communities have opportunities to meaningfully participate in the planning of recovery efforts?

Many jurisdictions have seen portions of their recovery plans put on hold by fair housing complaints or civil rights litigation. Everyone with a stake in long-term recovery would be well served by a thoughtful consideration of how to better integrate equity needs and considerations into these programs, not only to ensure positive outcomes, but also to promote timely recovery of those most in need of federal support.

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While it is hard to predict when disasters will strike, it is possible to prepare and invest in resiliency to decrease future vulnerabilities, improve long-term recovery outcomes, and reduce overall recovery costs. In a post-coronavirus world, it is important to critically analyze our response and approach to all types of disasters: cybersecurity incidents, infrastructure failures (intentional or unintentional), and public health crises, such as the opioid epidemic or homelessness. We need to face reality; these types of events are no longer outliers and will become more common in the face of the evolving risk and aging infrastructure in our communities.

While there are many disaster response and recovery reforms that should be considered, streamlining the recovery process and identifying ways to encourage resilient rebuilding as we seek to establish the “new normal” is an essential first step to enable the future success and strength of communities across America. The above observations are broad starting points but weaving them into deliberations on the future of federal disaster recovery policy should help point the process in a positive direction.

Stan Gimont is a Senior Advisor for Community Recovery with Hagerty Consulting. Stan joined Hagerty after 32 years of service with HUD and is a member of BPC’s task force on disaster response reform.

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