WASHINGTON—The costs of helping communities recover from natural disasters are rising, yet most states do not comprehensively track these expenditures, according to a report from The Pew Charitable Trusts. Natural disaster assistance involves a complex set of players from the public, for-profit, and nonprofit sectors, with intergovernmental partnerships at the center. But in the absence of accurate state data, policymakers at all levels of government are operating without the critical information they need to control growth in the costs of future disasters.
The report, “What We Don’t Know About State Spending on Natural Disasters Could Cost Us,” examines state spending across all phases of a natural disaster—mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery—from 2012 to 2016. States face several significant challenges in tracking these data, but the limited data available show that, across the states studied, spending was highly variable. States spend on their own programs and to meet requirements for assistance from federal programs. Among the eight states for which Pew has the most complete data, expenditures for state programs ranged from 93 percent of total disaster spending in Delaware to zero in Wyoming, which reported operating no programs of its own.
“States don’t know the full cost of natural disasters, and that lack of understanding could be detrimental,” said Anne Stauffer, who directs Pew’s research on disaster spending. “You can’t effectively manage what you don’t track, and the absence of information creates uncertainty for state budgets in this era of increasing costs.”
The lack of state data also has implications for managing growth in federal disaster spending, which has been rising for at least the past decade. Federal lawmakers have already allocated $140 billion for the hurricanes and wildfires that struck communities across the country in 2017. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s public assistance program, which helps states and localities clear debris and rebuild infrastructure, had eight of its most expensive years on record in the decade between 2007 and 2016.
The report recommends that state and federal policymakers prioritize collecting comprehensive data. “Policymakers in our nation’s capital are considering several options to address the rising costs of disasters,” said Stauffer. “But making policy decisions without the necessary information on state and local contributions risks simply shifting spending from one level of government to another and missing opportunities to encourage investments that could control growth in the nation’s total costs over time.”
The Pew Charitable Trusts is driven by the power of knowledge to solve today’s most challenging problems. Learn more at pewtrusts.org.