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Scant Disaster Data-Keeping Hampers Cost-Effective Solutions, Report Finds

In 2017, hurricanes battered American costal and island communities, leaving only people’s roofs peeking out from under the murky floodwaters, while on the West Coast fires ripped through neighborhoods and forests at shocking speeds.

In the face of such large-scale destruction, governments acted quickly in building a coordinated response: local and state officials erected shelters and dispatched emergency responders, and the federal government provided additional resources. As demonstrated by these actions, governments play a vital role in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters, as well as the other phases of disaster response: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. But these efforts often come at a great cost.

According to a study conducted by Pew Charitable Trusts, increasingly more federal funds are being spent on emergency responses, so Congress and the Trump administration are considering options to reduce spending on these events. However, they are doing so without comprehensive data on state and local governments’ contributions. Making decisions without reliable, consistent data could result in ineffective policy that does not fully address the spending problem, says the report.

Pew attempted to fill this state and local data gap by surveying state emergency managers and their staffs, requesting information on financial records connected to disaster response. Twenty-three states responded. The key findings were:

  • Most states do not adequately track natural disaster spending. The episodic nature of natural disasters makes it hard for governmental officials to maintain a focus on tracking costs, and data collection is difficult when spending is spread across multiple agencies, especially because these agencies often report spending differently.
  • State spending is highly variable. The comprehensiveness of the 23 states’ data varied widely. After analyzing the data, Pew found that states take a range of approaches to tracking and sharing spending.

Therefore, Pew recommended that state and federal policymakers make gathering comprehensive data a priority.

“With support from high-level officials, we recommend that states prioritize the collection of detailed information in order to categorize spending by disaster phase, including specific information on mitigation, which research shows reduces future costs, and capture the ways in which states share costs with local government,” said Anne Stauffer, director at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

However, without proper data, any attempts to reduce costs risk bringing about ineffective or wasteful results. The federal government has already begun to propose several solutions to the problem, but these solutions are contingent on states’ ability to provide thorough data.

Many of the solutions proposed by policymakers focus on the mitigation phase of disaster. As defined in the study, mitigation covers preemptive actions to combat natural disasters such as “retrofitting buildings and infrastructure, buying out property, establishing state hazard mitigation plans, building tornado safe rooms and implementing building safety codes.”

To reduce federal funding, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is looking toward providing incentives for mitigation efforts.

“The federal government is currently considering proposals to manage its disaster costs in ways that could change how federal funds flow to states and reward states for mitigation efforts,” Stauffer said. “For example, the 2018 bipartisan budget agreement allows the federal share of FEMA Public Assistance grants to increase from 75 to 85 percent for states that invest in mitigation.”

But Stauffer said a state’s ability to benefit from these programs is contingent on keeping better financial records. Without adequate data on state spending “federal policymakers risk shifting spending to the states instead of reducing overall costs.”

Additional policy changes the federal government is considering involve reducing the amount spent on FEMA’s Public Assistance Grant Program (PA), the largest recovery program the agency offers. According to the study, one proposed strategy is increasing the threshold at which state costs would warrant a presidential disaster declaration and related funding.

FEMA has also proposed a “Public Assistance Deductible” as an alternative to increasing the price threshold. Under this proposal, the agency would require states spend a predetermined amount of their own money before receiving PA funding.

Underlying much of the debate and reform proposals regarding disaster spending is the assumption that states are not contributing enough, but the incomplete data on states’ expenditures makes this difficult to assess.

The lack of data has important implications for federal and state efforts to manage rising natural disaster costs, and policymakers at all levels are missing important information needed to make informed decisions about disaster assistance funding.

According to the study, the only way to fix this issue is a greater focus on data collection by both federal and state officials.

“To meet federal and state informational needs, Pew recommends that policymakers at both levels of government make a commitment to improve data collection, document spending by disaster phase and ensure that tracking efforts include local spending.”

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