Webster Statement from Hearing on FEMA’s Priorities for Fiscal Year 2022 & Beyond
Opening remarks, as prepared, of Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management Ranking Member Daniel Webster (R-FL) from today’s hearing entitled, “Building Smarter: The Benefits of Investing in Resilience and Mitigation”:
Thank you, Chair Titus, and thank you to the new FEMA Administrator, Ms. Criswell, for being here today.
FEMA has a mission critical to our Nation and my home state of Florida. FEMA leads the federal government’s response to disasters – natural and man-made. While hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and tornados are disasters that are more common, FEMA also manages the response to man-made disasters. Additionally, as we have seen with COVID-19, FEMA has an important role in responding to pandemics. This all-hazards approach is critical to ensuring we are prepared and the chain of command at the federal level is clear, effective, and efficient.
Following problems in the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, Congress fixed key issues. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, DHS had dispersed FEMA authorities throughout the Department and put multiple people in charge. This created confusion with no clear chain of command. The Post-Katrina Act put FEMA back together again and, while maintaining FEMA within DHS, ensured that it’s the FEMA Administrator – the emergency management expert – leading the federal response. This provides a clear chain of command up to the Administrator and then directly to the President.
Since the reforms of the Post-Katrina Act, we have also passed reforms to streamline the recovery process and invest more in mitigation and resiliency. There has been some progress; however, at times it seems after Congress removes red tape, more red tape is created by FEMA. With the significant rise in disaster costs and more disasters happening more frequently, we simply cannot afford to continue doing things the same way and expect different results.
Time costs money – the longer it takes communities to rebuild, the higher the costs to both those communities and to the federal taxpayer. For example, in the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act, we created section 428 of the Stafford Act intended to give States a choice for a streamlined, faster process or to use the old, paperwork-intensive process for rebuilding infrastructure. 428 authority was intended to speed up the process by basing assistance on certified cost estimates. The idea was to reduce costs by shortening the rebuilding time, cutting administrative costs, and arriving at a more definitive dollar amount for a project faster. Yet, by many accounts the 428 process is looking more like the old, cumbersome process, removing any incentives to use it.
Similarly, on the individual assistance side, GAO detailed how confusing FEMA’s process can be for individuals and families to navigate. Communities hit by disaster should not have to deal with bureaucratic red tape when they are trying to rebuild their lives. Ultimately, making it more difficult to access assistance will not reduce the rise in disaster costs – it may actually increase it.
Proposals to tinker around the edges, like making it more difficult for disaster declarations or creating more red tape, do little to reduce disaster costs and harm individuals and communities. The reality is only a quarter of the disasters make up over 90% of disaster costs. It’s the big disasters that drive the costs.
And, we know the proven way we can reduce future disaster costs is investment in mitigation. Study after study has shown that $1 of investment in mitigation can save $4 to $11 dollars in disaster recovery costs. In Florida, we have seen these benefits firsthand frequently by building smarter and investing in proven mitigation strategies. That is why on a bipartisan basis, in the Disaster Recovery Reform Act, we authorized up to 6% of disaster costs out of the Disaster Relief Fund to be used for pre-disaster mitigation. Unfortunately, FEMA has only set aside a portion of what is available for mitigation, and we see the same proposed for the FY2022 budget.
The solutions to helping communities recover and reducing future costs are clear. First, simplify the recovery process for small disasters to reduce administrative costs and allow federal and state resources to focus on the large, more complex disasters. Second, in the larger disasters, leverage flexibilities in the law to close out projects faster. Third, maximize investment in proven mitigation measures.
FEMA already has many tools and legal authorities to achieve these goals, but where you feel you don’t have what you need, we need to know. And, to make meaningful progress in these areas, it must come from the top down within FEMA. I look forward to working with you closely on these and other issues. I believe we can all work together to finally really make a difference in how we prepare for and recover from disasters. I look forward to hearing your testimony.
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