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The Democratic Candidates’ Plans for Disaster Readiness and Recovery

In the last five debates, we watched the Democratic candidates discuss climate change and what they can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Hearing their ideas has been important and valuable, yet too little time has been exploring what policymakers should do about the real-world impacts of climate change already underway. We need to hear more about how they, as president, would better protect communities already at risk from increasingly extreme weather and the rising number of deadly and devastating natural disasters—what is needed to help communities recover, build back stronger, and mitigate future vulnerabilities.

On December 19, 2019, seven candidates will take the stage for the sixth Democratic debate. With climate change again on the agenda, BPC hopes this debate will offer a forum on how best to protect communities already at risk from extreme weather and other disasters, including hurricanes, droughts, flooding, and wildfires. In particular, debate-watchers should listen for the candidates’ ideas on four key policy areas we have identified as central to any platform to help Americans recover from disasters, build back stronger, and adapt to climate-related risks:

Reform and expand flood insurance programs. The National Flood Insurance Program, or NFIP, makes federally backed flood insurance available in communities that agree to adopt and enforce floodplain management ordinances. However, the program annually runs a deficit of $1.4 billion and, in 2017, Congress simply forgave $16 billion worth of NFIP debt—essentially adding it to the overall federal debt. As of November 2019, NFIP remains $20.5 billion in debt to taxpayers. Among the program’s many challenges, it lacks permanent authorization, which means lapses in authority are a frequent possibility that would force NFIP to stop selling and renewing insurance policies. With only about 15% of flood insurance policies in the United States covered by private companies, NFIP plays a primary role in the nation’s flood preparedness system. Candidates should outline plans to expand both public and private flood insurance coverage, limit development in the most flood-prone areas, and ensure the sustainability of the NFIP.

Prioritize investments in pre-disaster mitigation and resilience. After each extreme weather event, the country rallies around those affected, and understandably the focus is on how to most quickly get areas rebuilt so that people can resume their lives. However, more attention should be devoted to pre-disaster mitigation and resilient building given rising risks. This requires a long-term, sustained national discussion about how to protect vulnerable communities from extreme weather. Candidates should outline how they will promote more adaptive and resilient construction and development.

Update FEMA’s floodplain maps. To determine who is most at risk of flooding, FEMA maintains a database of maps that chart the areas susceptible to both 100-year (1% chance per year) and 500-year floods. Notably, today’s maps are not based on the best available science but rather a political compromise struck between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and local politicians. Some maps are based on 40-year-old data, while the maps for 3,300 communities living in floodplains are 15 years old. As of December 2016, 68% of the maps required a restudy or further assessment. When facing new and unprecedented weather events, we need to know and understand all future vulnerabilities, not just historical patterns. Candidates’ platforms should include discussion of the floodplain maps and how to overcome local obstacles to updating them.

Improve funding and budgeting for federal disasters. Americans in general and policymakers specifically are the most forward-thinking. However, it is irresponsible of federal decision-makers to treat each disaster as a surprise and declare their recovery costs “emergencies.” The repeated failure of Congress to account for disaster recovery costs adds to the national debt and puts future taxpayers at risk. Candidates should discuss how to budget and fully pay for all disaster-related costs.

Disaster readiness and recovery have not been discussed as much as climate change. However, some candidates have proposed policies that address BPC’s priorities. Here is where each candidate stands on these important issues:

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Democratic Candidates' Stances

CandidateReform Flood Insurance Invest in MitigationUpdate FEMA’s
Floodplain Maps
Improve Disaster Budgeting
Joe Biden• Work with the insurance industry to identify ways to lower property insurance premiums for homeowners and communities who invest in resilience, expanding programs like the Community Rating System under FEMA.• Develop regional climate resilience plans to find the most relevant science, data, information, tools, and training.
• Build a new resilient infrastructure economy.
• Build a new resilient infrastructure economy by creating a new class of well-paying jobs and job training around climate resilient industries.
• Define the climate adaptation agenda to bring together the best innovators to design common-sense zoning and building codes so communities can build/re-build before and after natural disasters.
Cory Booker • $30 billion in annual investments to fund disaster relief and pre-disaster mitigation.• Invest $300 billion by 2030 in climate resiliency and disaster relief.
Pete Buttigieg• Launch a National Catastrophic Extreme Weather insurance program.• Support loan programs that incorporate resilience and mitigation.
• Support state and local disaster preparation initiatives.
• Fund resilience efforts through 1) the American Clean Energy Bank and 2) Global Investment Initiative.
• Defend FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund.
• Statutory authorization and increased budget for FEMA’s Individual and Community Preparedness Division.
Julián Castro
• Invest $2 billion in strengthening the National Flood Insurance Program, specifically expanding buy-out funding.• Expand HUD’s Natural Disaster Resilience Grant program.
• Increase Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant program by $500 million a year.
• Reestablish and expand HUD’s National Disaster Resilience Grant program by an annual $500 million.
• As part of the investment in NFIP, require updates of FEMA’s flood maps. • Require communities to develop natural hazard and disaster risk management plans to receive HUD Community Development Block Grant and HOME program funding.
John Delaney
• Create a $60 billion Climate Infrastructure Fund that will allow state and local governments to invest in and prioritize projects that will expand and improve climate-resilient and energy-efficient infrastructure.
Amy Klobuchar • Build climate resilience into all federal infrastructure. Investments.
• Upgrade levees to account for more frequent and severe floods.
• Use disaster funding to build more resilient communities.
• Increase funding for FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.
• End the Stafford Act prohibition that prevents disaster funding from being used for significant infrastructure improvements.
Bernie Sanders • Invest $636.1 billion in repairing roads, bridges, and water infrastructure to be resilient.
• Invest another $300 billion in all-new infrastructure built over the next ten years is resilient.
• Establish an Office of Climate Resiliency for People with Disabilities.
• Direct $40 billion to establish a Climate Justice Resiliency Fund to identify areas with high climate impact and provide block grants for climate resiliency projects.
• Direct $2 billion in additional investment in FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.
• Amend the Stafford Act so FEMA has more autonomy to address families being able to return to their communities.
Tom Steyer• Secure armed forces and military bases against extreme weather through smart infrastructure investments and planning.
• Establish Civilian Climate Corps to improve disaster prevention, resiliency, response, and recovery through community-led planning processes.
• Lead a global plan to prevent and reduce climate-related disasters to protect residents’ rights to return to their communities after a natural disaster and investing in resiliency building.
• Steer $2 trillion over 10 years (with mobilizing private capital) into America’s infrastructure and resiliency building.
Elizabeth Warren • Ensure residents have buy-back rights, especially for low-income homeowners, at a value that will allow them to relocate.
• Make it easier for vulnerable residents to move out of flood-prone properties.
• Invest in FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program.
• Establish a National Commission on Disability Rights and Disasters.
• Establish a competitive grant program to offer states and local governments the opportunity to compete for resiliency building projects.
• Make FEMA update flood maps to raise standards for construction and tear down flood-prone properties. • Amend the Stafford Act to make grant funding more flexible to allow families and communities to rebuild in more resilient ways.
Andrew Yang• Reevaluate the way FEMA and the NFIP determine where structures can be rebuilt, taking a stricter stance against rebuilding in high-risk areas.• Invest $25 billion over 10 years in high-risk communities to be more disaster-resistant through pre-disaster mitigation grants.• Reevaluate the way FEMA and the NFIP determine where structures can be rebuilt, taking a stricter stance against rebuilding in high-risk areas.


Importantly, the candidates that are listed here and those that are not have proposed policies outside of the four policy priorities we identified but are related to disaster readiness and recovery. For example, some candidates have ideas to target assistance to the agriculture industry and rural communities. Others focus on cities with aging infrastructure. The proposals of candidates like Michael Bennet and Mike Bloomberg focus on resiliency and climate change globally, prioritizing it as national security and foreign policy issue. When it comes to mitigation and flood mapping, some want to increase FEMA’s level of authority to address community-level challenges whereas others want to create new community-based programs. On sustained funding, some candidates, like Marianne Williamson, see enacting the Green New Deal as the best way to ensure infrastructure is resilient, and others would want to increase HUD, EPA, and FEMA funding. Many candidates called for reestablishing President Barack Obama’s Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, which mandated stricter building codes for construction in or near floodplains.

Most importantly and similarly to BPC, all the candidates on the stage in the December debate recognize that helping Americans recover from disasters, build back stronger, and adapt to climate-related risks must be part of a broader agenda around climate change. We hope the candidates will continue to work to develop more comprehensive disaster resiliency and recovery plans and discuss them on the debate stage tonight.