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Ex-FEMA official: How to plan for ‘radical resilience’ to disaster

(CNN)Hurricane Harvey was a one-in-1,000-year flood event, yet a few weeks later Hurricane Irma is barreling towards Florida as the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic. These events follow a record 2016 which saw three devastating 1-in-1,000-year flood events in the United States: a separate flood in Houston, another in West Virginia, and a third in Maryland.

Just a few years earlier, we were hit by Hurricane Sandy, which was a one-in-700-year event.
We are living through a historic shift: there are more natural disasters, they are coming more frequently, and are fundamentally altering our economy and the way we live.
    We can no longer view natural disasters through the singular lens of “disaster — recovery.” Rather, a complete paradigm shift is necessary. We must adjust to this new norm of major natural disasters by paying radical attention to resilience.
    Certainly, discussing future preparedness in the middle of a crisis seems off the mark. But that, actually, is part of the point: America is often at its best when it’s being challenged. From confronting world wars to reacting on 9/11, Americans have been clear-eyed ready to hear what needed to be done to prevent a tragedy from occurring again.
    Here today, the public is ready to respond to the immediate disaster, but also needs and wants to hear the reality of what must be done moving forward. Our elected officials must be honest about the changes the nation needs to make as a result of climate-related disasters.

      Irma to slam southern Florida, head inland

    First, Congress and Donald Trump’s administration need to prepare Americans for the fact that the response is larger than any one federal agency. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is designed to secure the immediate needs of survivors and help guide the rebuilding of public infrastructure. But Congress has not designed FEMA to make people whole — in fact, the largest federal agency recipients of funding after Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey were the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation.
    So, as funds are dispersed for recovery from the twin disasters of Harvey and Irma, keeping track of how best to build back will be the central focus of many agencies — not just FEMA. The federal attention that will be required to respond to and help these communities recover will cost hundreds of billions of dollars — that’s right — hundreds of billions of dollars, spread across agencies.
    Second, Congress needs to look at how it is funding community resiliency projects. According to a report from December 2016 by Barack Obama’s administration, the average event cost per hurricane is $16.2 billion. Harvey and potentially Irma will dwarf this number. Along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts alone, there is an estimated $10 trillion in insured property that is at risk to hurricanes.

      Curator, 54 cats riding out Irma in iconic home

    The National Flood Insurance Program must be reauthorized by Congress by September 30. That presents an opportunity for Congress to work to put federal policies in place that help communities mitigate their risks while improving resilience in their communities through stronger building codes, such as mandating a 2-foot elevation above the base elevation for federally funded projects in flood zones.
    Third, the Trump administration needs to help keep our country focused. While tax reform undoubtedly affects millions of Americans, speeches in Missouri and North Dakota in the middle of preparations, response, and recovery to Harvey and Irma, distract from the need to bring Americans together to help. Yes, the President can walk and chew gum at the same time. That’s not the point. The point is that now is the time for the President to bring Americans and Congress together to do something big.
    The American people are generous and more than able to bounce back from all manner of trials, but during a time of national crisis, they rely on encouragement from elected leaders.
    Congress needs to take this opportunity to pass legislation that helps prepare communities for future storms. The Senate just allocated $15 billion in Harvey recovery funds. This is a small down payment.
    The real cost will come later on, when the American taxpayer is footing the bill for future disasters that our leaders failed to plan for. Now is the time to use the power of the presidency to rally the American people, to prepare them for the long road ahead, and for a more resilient future.
    That is the only way to continue to keep America great.

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