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Earthquakes, Tsunamis, and Floods: Oh, My!

Congress Advances Legislation to Reauthorize FEMA

Russell McIntyre    |    Housing Policy

“Since 1989, the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] alone has obligated almost $200 billion for over 1300 major presidentially declared disasters,” stated Representative Lou Barletta (R-PA-11) during a recent committee markup session, as he introduced his legislation to reauthorize FEMA for the first time in the agency’s history.

Yes – you read that correctly.  This is technically the first ever reauthorization of FEMA. 

When FEMA was first established by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, it was authorized through an executive order as part of a much broader executive branch reorganization.  However, it wasn’t until George W. Bush’s signing of the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act in 2006 that the agency received its first ever statutory authorization.  Throughout the intervening years, and in the years since, the agency has received funding and been reorganized through a variety of executive orders, must-pass budget legislation, and ad-hoc disaster response bills. 

So what does this reauthorization actually do besides just … reauthorizing?  Three things in particular.

First, it authorizes supplementary funding for FEMA over the next three years: $1.049 billion, $1.066 billion, and $1.083 billion, respectively.  These amounts will be built into funding considerations when Congress appropriates the rest of FEMA’s budget during their annual budget process.

Second, it authorizes the administrator of FEMA to begin a “comprehensive study relating to disaster costs and losses and federal disaster assistance.”  This study will be conducted through FEMA’s National Advisory Council and will include additional yet-to-be-appointed members who have technical knowledge on issues related to disaster costs and losses, spokespeople for the insurance industry, experts in the construction and building industries, academic thought-leaders, and other representatives from the private industry with capabilities for emergency management services.  Together, these members will assess recent trends in disaster costs and losses; the roles and responsibilities of various government, private sector, and individual actors in response to a major disaster; and make recommendations to the FEMA administrator in the form of a report.  These recommendations center around the common goals of enhancing decision-making, reducing the costs of response, and identifying challenges to future implementation.

Third, the legislation officially transfers to the FEMA administrator the responsibility for the nation’s efforts to prepare and respond to earthquakes and tsunamis, or a combined earthquake and tsunami event (which are very real, and can have devastating consequences for communities).  FEMA has long been involved in these types of natural disasters: promoting better building code practices; assisting in the development of mitigation, preparedness, and response plans; and supporting education and awareness programs.  However, the statutory responsibility to coordinate the nation’s efforts has never been placed directly on FEMA’s shoulders; instead, it has been dispersed amongst four federal agencies.  This legislation consolidates responsibility within FEMA, in the hopes of creating a more spearheaded approach to mitigating for and responding to earthquake- and tsunami-related disasters.  As Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR-4) reminded the committee, “this is particularly important in the western United States, particularly the Pacific Northwest with the expected Cascadia Subduction Zone event, which could be as devastating as a 9.0+ event.”  This is an issue that CoreLogic has been studying for years: our U.S. Earthquake Catastrophic Risk Model offers a comprehensive analytical view to quantify the risk to a specific building or portfolio, resulting in the allocation of appropriate pricing and capital reserves.  And as CoreLogic’s resident seismologist, Maiclaire Bolton, reminded us in a recent blog post: there will always be “a continuing need to better understand and prepare for the risks that these earthquakes pose.”

Odds of passage are good for H.R. 2548 (the bill’s official number).  With more than a year left in this congressional session, there is plenty of calendar time available to bring it to the floor.  It has a Republican sponsor, which is key, but also a couple of Democratic cosponsors, giving it a bipartisan lift.  And it passed out of committee by a voice vote, usually a sign that the bill contains no controversial items that might inhibit it at a later stage in the process.

Moving forward, we hope this piece of legislation sets a precedent for Congress to revisit FEMA’s reauthorization every few years, instead of updating the agency on an ad-hoc basis.  Consistency and clarity are important keys that provide FEMA’s staff, and outside contractors, with the knowledge and foresight to plan for whatever nature has in store.

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