Disaster Aid Sometimes Helps Fund the Next Disaster

July 29, 2020
Disaster aid may actually encourage reckless rebuilding in locations, such as flood plains, that are prone to future disasters. Above, an oceanside home in Mantoloking, N.J., knocked off its foundations by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Photo:  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/Andrew Stamer, courtesy Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Disaster Aid Sometimes Helps Fund the Next Disaster

By Joseph A. Davis

As hurricanes like Hanna, wildfires and other disasters bear down on U.S. communities, the immediate, catastrophic losses catch people’s hearts and get the first news headlines.

But there’s another disaster story that will help you get behind the initial shock and human misery — and which you can work on in advance. That story is disaster aid

Sometimes, such aid provides for the planning and prevention that can save lives and homes the next time disaster strikes. Sometimes, however, Mother Nature is sending a message: Get out of the way.

Floods are one example. They happen for many reasons, causing people to lose their homes, their livelihoods and sometimes their lives. News interviews with devastated families vowing to rebuild as they muck out their living rooms can make a good story. But does it make good sense? Perhaps what’s needed is for the family — or entire community — to move out of the flood plain.


Why it matters

There are few parts of the country not subject to some kind of natural disaster at some point — whether flood, wildfire, drought, ice storm, hurricane, tornado, earthquake, landslide, volcanic eruption, insects, crop or livestock disease … or pandemic. It’s a lot of ground for journalists to cover. 

It’s easy to speak of “natural” disasters as something that capricious forces throw at us through no fault of our own. At times this mindset is justified. But at times it is not. 

Beneath many disasters are decisions and behaviors that people make themselves. Building in the flood plain is a classic. Too often, our model of disaster aid encourages reckless rebuilding and discourages adaptive, resilient or preventive responses.

Of course, every threat is different. If you live on the San Andreas Fault, you build your homes and schools a certain way (one-story, shake-resistant structure). If you live in Tornado Alley, you make sure you have a cellar. If your area is prone to ice storms, you may want roof ice guards or roof heating strips.  


The backstory

Disaster relief has made political careers. Case in point: It was leadership of the national effort to respond to the Great Flood of 1927 that arguably brought then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to the White House in 1928. 

But while Congress has made various attempts to help flood victims, it wasn’t until decades later, with Hurricane Betsy in 1965, that it got serious. The result was the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968, which it has been tinkering with for some 50 years without quite getting it right.


The story of federal flood 

insurance is a cautionary tale.


The story of federal flood insurance is a cautionary tale. The original idea was to provide federally backed flood insurance on the condition that insured communities adopt a minimum standard ordinance for managing the flood plain. This usually meant keeping buildings out of the flood plain. 

It worked … up to a point. Flood plain maps got gerrymandered. Localities fudged on their laws. The program bled red ink and Uncle Sugar always bailed it out. 

Congress has for years been declaring its intention to “reform” the flood insurance program, but this always means raising somebody’s rates. Politicians who want to get re-elected find that very hard to do. 

By the way, climate change will just make it worse.


Aid can work against disaster-proofing

One other thing is making it hard for the National Flood Insurance Program to steer development to higher ground — disaster aid.

Whatever the disaster, the extensive and highly political system of federal (and state) disaster aid works effectively against disaster-proofing communities. 

And the news media play a key role in this dysfunctional system. We journalists love the heroic tales of wiped-out families courageously vowing to rebuild. And we are convinced that our audiences love them. And, often enough, Uncle Sugar pays to make them come true … in the flood plain.

The disaster aid system is complicated and bureaucratic, and too big to fully describe here (although you can find out more from this FEMA overview or disaster financial assistance site).

But you will notice that whenever a big disaster happens, or is about to happen, governors plead on the phone and the president declares a federal disaster — and a lot of people breathe a half-sigh of half-relief. 

That’s because the disaster declaration triggers a flood of aid in which many of the rules are set aside. If the disaster is big enough, Congress will pass a big money bill (often called an “emergency supplemental”) to the tune of billions.  

Much of the disaster aid is managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. A good portion is also managed by the U.S. Small Business Administration, the states and other agencies. 


Story ideas

  • What recent big disasters have affected your area or region?  What are the special types of disasters you are vulnerable to and what special kinds of disaster aid may be needed?
  • What types of businesses or industries in your area have special vulnerabilities to disasters? What do industry leaders see as the problems, solutions and correct response of governments?
  • Are people building new homes in flood-prone locations in your area? If these are destroyed, can they be rebuilt? Who pays?
  • Are people building new homes in the “wildland-urban interface” (vulnerable to wildfire) in your area? Do any zoning rules or other ordinances prevent or control it?
  • What insurance is available in your area for flooding, wildfire, earthquake or other disasters? Talk to local insurance companies.


Reporting resources

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 29. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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