Expert Pitch
University of Delaware

Disaster policy overhaul: A potential bipartisan effort for Biden and Congress

28-Jan-2021 2:40 PM EST, by University of Delaware

With Congress still struggling to find common ground on any issue, the University of Delaware's A.R. Siders points to one that could be decidedly bipartisan: disaster policy, which needs a complete overhaul.

“Not only to address climate change and social justice but also to prevent government waste,” said Siders, assistant professor of public policy affiliated with UD's Disaster Research Center.

Siders recently outlined some of the steps the Biden administration can take:

  • An executive order that mandates increased coordination and collaboration across federal agencies; increases transparency to records on how disaster funds are spent; and sets new standards for presidential disaster declarations and creates incentives for state and local governments to reduce risk exposure (e.g., through building codes and land use regulations). This recommendation, developed by Siders and two collaborators in a recent policy memo, also notes that local and state governments currently have no financial incentive to take action because federal tax dollars bail them out.
  • Go beyond throwing money at the problem. The federal government needs to help states and locals build their capacity to use the money effectively. One reason disaster funds often go unspent is that local governments simply don't have the personnel to handle the grant applications and paperwork. FEMA announced $10 billion to be spent on climate adaptation, but they're unlikely to be able to spend all that money unless they help local governments apply for it. Instead, they could earmark $1 billion, paid out as $100 million over the next ten years, which would let every state in the county hire a grants expert to help local communities apply for funds and learn how to navigate the bureaucracy. FEMA and other agencies should also reduce their paperwork burden. 
  • Finally, and most importantly - the Biden administration should articulate a grand vision for climate adaptation. Commit to a plan that will eliminate billion-dollar disasters by 2040. Commit to creating a National Seashore so that all citizens have access to the coast and everyone's risk from hurricanes and floods is reduced. Commit to move all federally-subsidized housing outside of the floodplain. We need a vision on a grand scale - something like the New Deal's promise to electrify the South, or the plan to build a national highway system, or the plan to put a man on the moon. 

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