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Editorial: FEMA's looming budget deficit calls for resources and new thinking

The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press Editorial Board, The Virginian-Pilot on

Published in Op Eds

As communities along the Gulf Coast begin the cleanup from Hurricane Beryl, which made landfall Monday as a weakened Category 1 storm, they should find comfort in knowing that help is coming. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is well schooled in disaster recovery and has been on the ground since spring, when some of those same areas suffered flooding in uncommonly heavy rains.

However, at a time of extreme weather that causes extremely costly disasters, the federal agency is already concerned about running out of money before the Atlantic hurricane season ends. Congress has a responsibility to provide the funding necessary for FEMA to provide adequate assistance to victims, and to do so without allowing the issue to be mired in political infighting.

It will be some time before the nation knows how severely Beryl affected the Texas and Louisiana coasts, but the early reports are not good. At least eight people are dead, more than 2.5 million residents lost power, and flooding inundated cities such as Houston, causing considerable damage.

Before Beryl’s arrival, the United States had recorded 11 billion-dollar disasters this year. These include tornado outbreaks across the Midwest in April and May, severe rain that caused historic flooding in Nebraska, Missouri and Iowa, and winter storms that pounded the Pacific Northwest and the southern U.S.

Those events come on the heels of a year in which the country experienced a record 28 billion-dollar weather disasters that collectively cost at least $92.9 billion. And with the Atlantic hurricane season projected to be among the most active in history, the nation could well set another record for both the number of disasters and their collective cost this year.

That’s deeply worrisome for hurricane-threatened areas such as Hampton Roads since, per FEMA administrators, the agency expects to exhaust the Disaster Relief Fund next month. Using estimates based on a 10-year average, officials project the fund will run a $1.44 billion deficit by the end of August and $6.28 billion in the red by Sept. 30.

Of course, these aren’t normal times. The nation is experiencing unprecedented extreme weather and more costly disasters than ever before. It’s more likely than not that the money will run out sooner than expected.

 

“We are prepared for what was. We are not prepared for what is and what will be,” former FEMA Deputy Administrator Richard Serino told CNN last month.

As many area residents know, assistance from FEMA can be a lifeline of support in troubled times, but the program isn’t designed to help victims recover all they have lost. On average, households only receive about $8,000 from the agency, leaving state and local governments and insurance companies to pick up the rest of the tab.

This is emblematic of the country’s backwards approach to disasters, which emphasizes cleanup and recovery rather than preparation and resilience. That has begun to change in recent years as the perils of extreme weather become more obvious, but it’s a transformation that needs to gain steam — and quickly.

It’s not only a task for the feds. The looming disaster relief shortfall is a reminder that municipal and state governments have a responsibility to invest in resilience and prepare communities long before disaster strikes. It’s a dereliction of duty to show up, mop in hand, after a storm has passed rather than to make strategic investments before it hits.

It is also incumbent upon Congress to provide FEMA’s disaster relief efforts with the funding it needs to confront our new reality while also expanding its capacity to ready communities for extreme weather. This cannot be a battleground to score partisan points, but an area that demands cooperation.

Beryl will soon dissipate, but the threat to coastal communities and others across the nation will remain. Officials must reorient our emergency efforts toward preparation, to build partnerships across levels of government that can power recovery efforts, and to match those efforts with the resources they need to succeed.


©2024 The Virginian-Pilot. Visit at pilotonline.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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