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Past FEMA Head Urges Smarter Rebuilding After Natural Disasters

Craig Fugate says the United States has an opportunity to rebuild more resiliently if Congress doesn’t simply provide relief money but also requires rebuilding to higher standards.

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As federal officials focus on providing billions of dollars in recovery aid to regions of the United States hard hit by recent hurricanes, a former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is urging that the country rebuild better and smarter to reduce future losses from hurricanes and other natural hazards.

“Your tax dollars are about to be invested in one of the largest infrastructure projects” in the country, said Craig Fugate, who ran FEMA from May 2009 to January 2017 under the Obama administration, on Tuesday. He was referring to rebuilding parts of Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands where hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria recently made landfall.

“You’re talking billions [of dollars] of rebuilding, and the current plan will rebuild back the way it was, rebuild it back to the past, rebuild it back to fail again,” he said at a forum at the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank in Washington, D. C. We have the opportunity “to build to the future, build to future risk, build it so we make sound financial investments the first time, not have to come back time and time again” to rebuild communities and infrastructure, he added.

Former FEMA director Craig Fugate. Credit: Randy Showstack

Just prior to Fugate’s speech Tuesday, CAP issued a new report about posthurricane rebuilding. The document, “Safe, Strong, and Just Rebuilding After Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria,” calls for Congress to do more than simply rush emergency aid out the door. The report urges assistance to restore damaged areas with more resilient infrastructure to lower the risks and costs of the next disaster, prioritizing the rebuilding of communities that have the least resources, and updating FEMA flood maps.

Funding for Recovery Efforts

On Wednesday, Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, issued a letter stating that the Trump administration is calling for Congress to provide $12.77 billion to fund response and initial recovery needs following the recent hurricanes. That amount is in addition to a measure that President Donald Trump signed into law on 8 September that provides more than $15 billion for disaster relief.

At the same time that the administration called for additional relief funding, it also sought financial relief for the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and reform of the program. By later this month, NFIP “will have fully exhausted its financial resources (including its $30.4 billion in borrowing authority) and will be unable to pay claims,” Mulvaney wrote in his letter.

On Wednesday, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement that the administration’s funding request “is a good start.” “We should act on this supplemental quickly, but it should be just the beginning of Congress’ efforts to aid in rebuilding,” he said. Schumer, however, cautioned against ideologically motivated changes to the NFIP.

Added Risk from Climate Change

The country will have an opportunity to rebuild infrastructure so that it is more resilient in the face of future disasters if Congress not only provides money but also requires rebuilding to higher standards, Fugate said. “It costs more money on the front end. Lives saved, suffering reduced, and future costs will be the savings if we’ll make those investments,” he said.

There is a moral obligation to help people who have already built in high-risk areas, Fugate added, but he questioned the encouragement of new construction there. “Why are we writing a subsidized policy for brand-new construction in a flood zone?” he asked. By doing so, “we are encouraging growth in high-risk areas and putting vulnerable populations and your tax dollars at risk.”

Fugate also questioned basing rebuilding standards on past experience of what constitutes a once-in-a-century storm. The three major hurricanes of this season “each individually exceeded any known past records of impacts, and [if] you build back to the last 100 years you build a failure,” he said.

“Climate disruption and climate change [are] happening,” resulting in “increased amplification of rainfall events and drought cycles that [our nation] did not have a history of experiencing before,” he said at the CAP forum. If the White House is “not going to engage in climate discussions, at least look at the financial disasters,” he later told Eos.

Currently a senior adviser at BlueDot Strategies, a Washington, D. C., consulting firm, Fugate works with clients on emergency management implementation strategies and crisis communications. From 2001 to 2009, he was then Florida governor Jeb Bush’s emergency management director.

About a week before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, the administration on 15 August revoked a 2015 executive order issued by former president Barack Obama that established a federal flood risk management standard. At the CAP forum, however, Fugate said he thinks there is a good chance for progress on resiliency policies. He noted that within the administration, a vigorous debate followed the executive order revocation, with some officials wanting to frame the issue in terms of making sound financial investments.

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2017), Past FEMA head urges smarter rebuilding after natural disasters, Eos, 98, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO084103. Published on 06 October 2017.
© 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0