Jeff Schlegelmilch of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness questions why we spend so much money on relief when there are much greater cost savings in disaster mitigation
DHARNA NOOR: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Dharna Noor coming to you from Baltimore. Some 90% of Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million people are without electricity or clean water in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Hurricane Nate, the fourth powerful storm to hit the U.S. in just six weeks, killed 40 people as of this Tuesday, and we haven’t even entered official hurricane season yet. Meanwhile, California wild fires are raging through the state’s famous wine country. Over a dozen people have died and another 150 are missing. Over 119,000 acres of land have been burned. Scientists say we’re in a new era of extreme weather, due to human-caused climate change. Are we getting more prepared for oncoming disasters? Well, with us to discuss what real disaster preparedness means, is Jeff Schlegelmich. He’s the deputy director at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Earth Institute of Columbia. Thanks for joining us. J SCHLEGELMILCH: Hey, thanks for having me. DHARNA NOOR: Your organization looks at the short and the long-term effects of disasters in order to draw lessons from past disaster response and prepare better for the future. Were there any lessons that we should have learned from past disasters, like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and super storm Sandy in 2012. How did those lessons impact, or should they be impacting, how we’re dealing with Hurricane Maria and Irma and Harvey, and now Nate? J SCHLEGELMILCH: Yeah. When we look at disasters, I think there are different time horizons on the different kinds of lessons that we learn. What are the immediate lessons that we can implement in several months or even years and what are the much longer term lessons? As we start talking more about climate change and extreme events, I think those become really long-term decisions that need to be made. But in the short run, with Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, I think some of the immediate lessons that we learned was that one, there’s a lot of power within community. There are a lot of organizations within communities that are really looking to step up and help out. I just returned from Texas a couple of weeks ago and really saw the power of the faith-based community partnering with other non-profits, working in collaboration with FEMA, and in collaboration with government responders, rather than in prior responses where maybe there was concern over liability and things, and sort of pushed them to the sides. So you have this force multiplier. You had neighbors helping neighbors in a really structured way, in a really beneficial way. So I think we definitely learned and applied that lesson, as well as a lot of the preparedness investments that have been made in our hospital systems, in our public health systems, have just gotten us to a much higher level of capability. But on the other hand, when we’re looking at the built environment itself, what are we building in the pathways of hurricanes, of flooding, of weather that is changing, that is growing more extreme in certain circumstances? That’s where I worry more about not necessarily the next storm, but the storms a generation from now, as we’re seeing more and more investments and mitigation sort of going away or being questioned, along with the science of climate change. We’ve certainly seen very directly national regulations, federal regulations put in place in the last administration being repealed, which really are the first step towards addressing this generational, this long term view of how do we actually build ourselves into a more resilient place, and not just rely on good disaster relief and good disaster response. DHARNA NOOR: Now in terms of disaster response and relief, how would you compare the federal government’s response to Harvey with its response to Hurricane Maria? The federal government has kind of caught a lot of heat here for a dispirit response. J SCHLEGELMILCH: Yeah. There are a couple of things that are very different about this. I think that we always need to acknowledge what has gone right and also what has gone wrong because we need to learn these lessons and do a better job. Now with Harvey and Irma, there were a couple of things. One, we saw a lot of devastation, but we also saw areas that had large investments in preparedness. And even though there are a lot of questions around mitigation and the built environment and its exposure, you did see a higher level of investment in preparedness in that sense. You also saw these in areas that were surrounded by unaffected areas. So, like the Cajun Navy, like folks with boats coming down to help rescue people out of their homes could attach them to the truck and drive down. I think what we saw in Puerto Rico with Maria and what we’re seeing still is one, just the sheer level of devastation is much greater. That storm really hit the whole of the island and really knocked out the whole of the island. You’re seeing … It’s an island. You can’t drive down there to get there, so there are also limitations just in the logistics. You’re seeing a federal infrastructure that has been spread out across multiple responses, not just the hurricanes, the wild fires out west, and other disasters. Then you’re seeing the political landscape. Some of this is owned locally, where you’ve seen a long history of the deficit issues, infrastructure issues. Puerto Rico has its own political issues, just like anywhere else. Then some really distraction I think, at the very highest levels, where you see maybe a little bit of exhaustion from the other responses. And then some political in-fighting between President Trump and the mayor of San Juan and other folks. Whether or not that’s directly affected the logistics, it certainly doesn’t help the disaster response. While I think that there are some things we need to look at in terms of the response, and the sheer scale and the magnitude of what’s needed, I would suggest though that this is probably the scale of a response that is bigger than your traditional FEMA model of response and is something that we really need to take a closer look at. DHARNA NOOR: I want to look at another aspect of these disasters, which is the extreme cost that they can have. In the U.S., Irma, Maria and Harvey have each run up a billion-dollar tab, in terms of damages. This is just in the first nine months of 2017. This is according to data just released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA also predicts that Harvey’s cleanup will end up being even more expensive than that of Katrina, a famously expensive disaster cleanup. Right now, the House is considering a 29 billion dollar disaster aid package to Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico. While nearly all of Florida’s congressional delegation signed a letter on Friday asking for an additional 27 billion dollars in funding for that state alone. My question is, could better disaster preparedness not only save more lives, but also save money in the aftermath in these extreme weather disaster events? J SCHLEGELMILCH: Absolutely. I think that that’s the next frontier in emergency management, is that if we want to be angry at something, I think the thing to be angry about is why are we spending so much money on relief? Why are we measuring our effectiveness in disasters based on dollars spent and lives lost? When instead it should be, it’s a much greater cost savings to invest in preparedness ahead of time. It’s a much greater cost savings to invest in mitigation. There’s a myriad of problems around that, but you mentioned that we’re seeing more and more billion-dollar disasters. We’re seeing these, I think in 2017 alone, we’re already in the neighborhood of about a dozen billion-dollar disasters. That’s including other disasters, going on elsewhere in the country, not just the storms. This is from a range of different issues. Some of it is the built environment, where we’re building ourselves into more vulnerable places. We have crumbling infrastructure that requires investment to be more resilient to disasters. Climate change is obviously a big contributor to the increase in extreme events. The absolute degree within each disaster there’s some question of, but overall we do expect to see more extreme events like this. We’ve reduced our investments in preparedness. Then the other side to this, which has been coming up a lot in the emergency management community, is are we incentivizing preparedness? If states know that they can get a presidentially declared disaster, and that will cover 70% of their costs, what is the incentive to invest state dollars or local dollars in preparedness, in mitigation when you already have a stretched budget focused on roads and schools and all of the other important things that government does. I think taking a step back and really looking at what is our system of disaster relief versus disaster preparedness, and are we actually incentivizing relief when we should be incentivizing preparedness, so we don’t have the need for such extensive relief down the road. DHARNA NOOR: Zeroing in on what you just said about the impact of climate change on these disasters. Of course, this week the Trump administration announced that it plans to repeal Obama’s Clean Power Plan. The administration has pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement, so clearly we’re seeing some hostility to emissions reduction. Scientists have shown time and time again, again that more emissions create more natural disasters. What should the federal government be doing in terms of disaster preparedness? J SCHLEGELMILCH: Yeah. I would just add on to that as well, too, we’ve seen additional reversals of regulations and of executive orders under the Obama administration requiring climate change to be part of planning, of planning for future infrastructure and planning for future events. In addition to what you just mentioned and trying to reduce the overall emissions, to reduce the threat down in the future, that the actual preparedness we were hard coating into some of these regulations the need to start thinking about climate change and to start looking to future models of extreme weather, rather than past models of what the weather used to be. When we consider infrastructure and consider these big investments. First and foremost, I think what the federal government should be doing is really looking at the future impacts of climate change. What are these long term tools that are in place to help really guide things towards more resilient infrastructure, towards more responsible management of the built environment and the natural environment around it, as well too? But we can’t really do that with such hostility towards the term climate change, so instead we’re just continuing to see, fortunately we have seen the appointment of high quality people in FEMA and within Health and Human Services, and the assistant secretary for preparedness and response. So the short term disaster response, we’re seeing a lot of acknowledgement of the importance of this. But long term, in terms of the larger mechanisms that maybe cost a little bit more money in the short run, but aren’t experienced the savings until the longer run, we’re actually reversing the steps that were taken in the last administration, which is just gonna put us that much farther behind. DHARNA NOOR: Now, in light of all of the hostility that we’re seeing from the federal government, many are pushing for regulations on a local and state level. They’re pushing for local and state measures. What can local and state governments really do to prepare for coming disasters? J SCHLEGELMILCH: One of the best examples I think is the building codes in Florida. Although there’s been some legislative changes there that may actually alter the effectiveness of that long term, but after Hurricane Andrew there were a lot of changes to the building codes to make the buildings more resilient to the kinds of conditions that you see from a major hurricane. The data’s shown that those buildings tend to stay up standing. They tend to have less damage. You tend to spend less on them down the road. With state and local governments, I think you’re really looking at building codes. You’re looking at the various regulations within the state, and the kind of urban planning that takes into consideration. But not only the hard infrastructure and how to do that, but also the social infrastructure because there’s also a lot of research coming out of Japan, out of Katrina in the United States and elsewhere, that this sort of social connectedness, that the more we invest in communities, the more the communities are also able to advocate for themselves and serve as a resource to each other in all of this. So there’s a larger ecosystem of preparedness that actually state and local governments are very much at the forefront of and don’t necessarily need to wait or rely on federal programs or federal regulations to do it for them. DHARNA NOOR: This sort of brings us back to the cost question. Is there enough funding allocated for coming disasters? J SCHLEGELMILCH: I mean, I think the short answer is no, but the larger answer is there’s not enough money for everything. The question I have is that are we making a conscious decision to under-invest in preparedness or is it more of an ad hoc decision, where we’re saying, “Well, throw a billion dollars at schools and $500 million at roads.” Are we actually sitting down and doing the cost benefit of these things? We look to government a lot in the failures of preparedness, but we also have to look at ourselves as individuals and the private sector and the non-profit sector, and even where I’m coming from in the academic sector. Are we providing the right tools to do that cost benefit analysis? Are we providing the right information to be able to say to a company that is choosing to invest in a new power plant or in their own supply chain infrastructure. They don’t need a regulation to invest more in resilience. They just need a stronger business case for doing it. So I think that there’s a lot of work to be done to actually get from the conceptual that we’re talking about and the limited data available, and actually put that in place. DHARNA NOOR: But it does often come back to government, right, to incentivize those kinds of things. It comes to the amount of money that you can be given, of course, in tax breaks and things like that as well. These two issues are, of course, related. J SCHLEGELMILCH: Absolutely and government has a lot of tools to either specifically regulate and grant its way out of these problems or to help nudge market incentives and things like that through tax breaks and things like you mentioned. I think it’s also important though that voters tend not to incentivize preparedness. There was a study done a couple of years ago focused on natural disasters and voting behavior. What it found was that voters typically substantially reward relief spending. In this case, in this particular study, it was for every $27,000 in relief spending, bought you a vote. That there was a very significant correlation between voter behavior and relief funding and virtually no correlation between preparedness funding and voter behavior. As an elected official, even though you’re likely to see benefit from preparedness funding, even within your elected timeframe, within your term of service, voters are not gonna reward you for that. I think that’s one of the things also that we have an obligation to do in the emergency management field, whether you’re an academic or in the field, is to really make that case and to really help folks understand the value of preparedness so that that incentive structure changes, and isn’t focused so much on relief but that our elected officials are incentivized and rewarded for their investments in preparedness and held accountable when we do have to spend so much on relief. DHARNA NOOR: Okay. Jeff Schlegelmilch. He’s the deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Thanks so much for joining us again, Jeff. J SCHLEGELMILCH: Hey, thanks for having us. DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.