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Building a Disaster-Resilient Infrastructure
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ONC Editorial

Jan 14, 2023

Natural disasters are a frequent feature of our news cycles. We need to better prepare for them. (This proposal is featured in ONC's first book, Let's Fix America. The opinions expressed in this proposal represent the opinions and compromises of the authors.)

Big Picture
Our country faces numerous natural disasters every year, from fires to hurricanes to floods. Unfortunately, our responses to such crises are often inadequate and too reactive. It is time to think about how we can better prepare for natural disasters and make our infrastructure more resilient to their effects.

Graphic From: Davis, Maggie. “66% of Americans Don’t Feel Fully Prepared for Natural Disasters, and 45% Don’t Know if Their Insurance Covers Related Claims.” ValuePenguin. 29 Aug. 2022. This graphic depicts how prepared U.S. residents are for natural disasters.

 

Operative Definitions

  1. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): A federal agency operating under the Department of Homeland Security. Created in 1978 under President Jimmy Carter and in charge of responding to major disasters such as fires, floods and hurricanes.
  2. Disaster Relief Fund: The major funding source for FEMA, directed towards recovery and response efforts in areas affected by disasters.
  3. Digital Infrastructure: Infrastructure and services that are necessary to a society’s technological capabilities. Examples include broadband, cellular networks and data centers.

 

Important Facts and Statistics

  1. FEMA’s fund-allocating approach is crafted around an “indicator,” which is the minimum amount of money a state would have to spend per resident to qualify for FEMA aid. This indicator was tied to inflation rather than median incomes. But at the time of implementation (1999), the formula did not take into account inflation between 1986 and 1999. As a result, today’s indicator is artificially low. THTH
  2. It is estimated that only one fourth of cyberattacks get reported.
  3. FEMA is underprepared for worst-case scenarios, largely due to the budget of the Disaster Relief Fund being dependent on the average yearly cost of previous disasters.
  4. Congress appropriated $121.7 billion in relief for the 2005 (Katrina, Rita and Wilma) and 2008 (Gustav and Ike) hurricanes in 10 supplemental appropriations statutes.

 

3-Point Plan

1. Create more comprehensive building codes that take multiple kinds of disasters into account.
By expanding building codes, architects and builders will have a better understanding of what needs to be done to keep the building occupiers safe. Federal mandate will require these building codes to demonstrably take natural disasters into consideration, with states delineating the details beyond that. States may also incentivize building development companies, including those involved in housing, to produce disaster-resilient infrastructure beyond that required by the codes. This may be done through tax breaks, tax credits and/or partnership opportunities with government agencies. The details will depend on the circumstances of individual states. If state budgets are particularly limited, FEMA funding could be used to implement these measures.


2. Increase funding for disaster-relief fund.
Rather than having to petition for emergency financial aid from Congress after natural disasters have already occurred, more money should be allocated to the Disaster Relief Fund through the federal budget.


3. Incentivize companies to disclose cyberattacks.
Companies could be incentivized to comply through tax breaks and tax credits, as well as opportunities to access government operated databases, so long as no privacy or security is breached. By providing incentives for companies to disclose cyberattacks, the federal government can build a database to better understand these attacks and develop preventive measures against future security breaches. At this point in time, it is difficult for the government to stay ahead of digital attacks, as many companies decide not to report security breaches due to fear of public outcry.

 

Why This Initiative is Important
As the number of natural disasters increases, we need strong, sound structures that can withstand extreme weather. In June 2021, the nation saw a glimpse of the damage daily, local elements such as salty air can do to old, failing infrastructure like the 40-year-old, leak persistent Miami condominium which collapsed two years after a consulting report conveyed major structural damage, crushing 98 residents to death as they slept in their beds. The U.S. is underprepared for many of the natural disasters it faces. This initiative will ensure on-hand emergency funding and services, as well as aid in the prevention of natural tragedies, saving lives and millions of dollars in damages and repairs.

 

Economic Impact (from our student economist team):
Disaster relief being more focused on state funding will save federal funds and decrease taxes for people in places where natural disasters are rarer. Increasing relief funding will help economies recover more quickly from disasters. Estimated effect on the annual federal deficit: - $5.1 billion.

To learn how our student economists came up with this economic impact, send an email to [email protected] and ask for a more thorough description of their methodologies.

 

Final Thought for Now
“This new community center stands as a symbol of the extraordinary resilience of this city, the extraordinary resilience of its people, the extraordinary resilience of the entire Gulf Coast and of the United States of America.” – Barack Obama, visiting New Orleans several years after Hurricane Katrina (2015)

 

Acknowledgments
The following student(s) worked on this nonpartisan proposal: Regina Arroyo-Soto, University of Houston; Amanda Clegg, Texas A&M University; Ben Morris, Harvard University; Christian Williams, George Washington University; Ashwin Prabu, Stanford
University; Sam Taylor, Brigham Young University.

The following individuals worked with our student interns and contributed expertise, wisdom and moral support in the development of this proposal:

  1. Lynn Von-Koch Liebert: Executive Director of the California Strategic Growth Council, Sacramento.

Note: Not all participants agree with every aspect of this proposal. To arrive at a proposal that takes multiple views into account requires compromise and difficult decisions. For individual commentary on this proposal and more detail, go to OurNationalConversation.org. We invite you to add your comments as well.

 

Sources
“13 Examples of Digital Infrastructure.” Simplicable, 16 Oct. 2017, simplicable.com/new/digitalinfrastructure.

Atkin, Emily. “America's Natural Disaster Response Is Its Own Disaster.” The New Republic, 1 Sept. 2021, newrepublic.com/article/145019/americas-natural-disaster-responsedisaster


“How Ready Are We? Natural Disaster or Emergency Preparedness.” United States Census Bureau, 30 Apr. 2019, www.census.gov/library/visualizations/2015/comm/how_ready_are_we.html.


Frank, Thomas. “Why the U.S. Disaster Agency Is Not Ready for Catastrophes.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 20 Aug. 2019, www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-the-u-s-disaster-agency-is-not-ready-forcatastrophes


De Vynck, Gerrit. “Many ransomware attacks go unreported. The FBI and Congress want to change that.” Washington Post, July 27, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/202107/27/fbi-congress-ransomware-laws/


“Disaster Relief Fund: Monthly Reports.” FEMA, 9 Jun. 2022, www.fema.gov/about/reportsand-data/disaster-relief-fund-monthly-reports.

Marcus, Ezra. “What Is FEMA Actually Responsible for?” Mic, 6 May 2020, www.mic.com/p/what-is-fema-actually-responsible-for-22878301.

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