We Track Hurricanes and Wildfires. So Why Not Record What We Spend to Reduce Their Impacts?

We Track Hurricanes and Wildfires. So Why Not Record What We Spend to Reduce Their Impacts?
A controlled burn in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. Through this sort of mitigation activity, communities can reduce the cost of natural disasters, including wildfires.
Charlie Hamilton James/Getty Images

The historic impacts of Hurricanes Florence and Michael, along with this year’s wildfires, are the latest examples of more frequent and severe disasters, which cost the federal government and states billions of dollars annually. In fact, eight of the most expensive years on record for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) largest disaster assistance program occurred between 2007 and 2016. And the tally for last year’s unprecedented hurricanes and wildfires is not yet complete.

These staggering figures have caught the attention of federal policymakers, leading to calls to better manage the costs of future disasters by increasing investment in mitigation—such as removing dead and flammable trees near homes and elevating buildings above flood levels. Bolstered by research from the National Institute of Building Sciences showing that $1 invested in mitigation can save an average of $6 in recovery costs, recent executive and legislative efforts have taken many forms: increasing mitigation investment across all sectors and levels of government, expanding federal grant aid to state and local governments and nonprofits, and encouraging other levels of government to augment their spending on such activities.

Last year, FEMA launched its “Mitigation Investment Moonshot” initiative with the goal of quadrupling mitigation spending by 2022 on the part of federal, state, local, and tribal governments; corporations; nonprofits; and private foundations. Also last year, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the State Flood Mitigation Revolving Fund Act (S. 1507), which would create a partnership with states to provide low-interest loans for projects that reduce flood risk and save lives and dollars. Then, this February, Congress included a provision in its 2018 Bipartisan Budget Act (H.R. 1892) allowing the president to increase the federal government’s share of recovery costs from 75 to 85 percent for states that have invested in mitigation. And this month, the president signed H.R. 302, which included the Disaster Recovery Reform Act. The measure established a National Pre-Disaster Mitigation Fund to be financed by setting aside an amount equal to 6 percent of FEMA’s response and recovery grants after each major disaster.

But there’s a problem: No one knows how much the federal government and states spend on mitigation. This knowledge gap, which makes it difficult to identify appropriate levels of funding or to design incentives for states, could lead to policies that simply shift spending from one level of government to another while missing opportunities to reduce costs across all levels. Federal and state policymakers should therefore make collecting comprehensive, comparable data on mitigation spending a priority. 

Emergency management officials have offered support for this idea. “States should prioritize the tracking of their mitigation spending,” Daniel Kaniewski, FEMA’s deputy administrator for resilience, said at the National Emergency Management Association’s 2018 annual forum. Citing The Pew Charitable Trusts’ research, he encouraged states to define their baseline spending so they can measure improvements. He also suggested that the pre-disaster mitigation grant program could fund systems to track spending.

Elizabeth Zimmerman, former FEMA associate administrator and director of disaster operations and now senior executive adviser with the private-sector firm Innovative Emergency Management, underscored in July the importance of state mitigation data to inform federal proposals. She told an audience gathered to hear about Pew’s efforts on state disaster spending that working at the state and federal levels had taught her that this mitigation information is needed. Laura Adcock, disaster recovery branch chief with Ohio’s Emergency Management Agency, told the same audience about her agency’s public dashboard, which shows the costs and locations of the state’s mitigation investments. And Pew’s research has found that some states are already investing in mitigation—including North Dakota, which spent nearly $226 million to support local flood control and property acquisition projects from 2012 to 2016.

State and federal governments closely track hurricane paths and the spread of wildfires to help officials decide where to deploy first responders and set up recovery operations. But they don’t fully track their investments in disaster mitigation, which are critical to informing current federal efforts to increase funding for pre-disaster mitigation or reallocate funding to such cost-saving activities. And as disaster and budget experts know, you can’t manage what you don’t track. 

Anne Stauffer directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ fiscal federalism initiative.

This originally appeared on The Hill on Oct. 22.