U.S. Disaster Recovery 10-Year Bill Was $300 Billion

Nearly half of that amount was just from 2011 to 2013, according to a former White House resilience specialist.

by Eliot Kleinberg and Matt Morgan, The Palm Beach Post / May 14, 2015
"We can't prevent hurricanes any more than we can earthquakes or tornadoes," said Josh Sawislak, the White House's former resilience specialist. "But we can become more resilient to their impacts." (Wendell A. Davis Jr./FEMA)

(TNS) — Disaster recovery just from extreme weather and wildfires cost American taxpayers $300 billion in the past decade, the White House's former "resilience" specialist told the general session of the 29th annual Florida Governor's Hurricane Conference.

"That is just what Uncle Sam spent," Josh Sawislak told the conference. He said the figure doesn't count billions in insured and uninsured losses by individuals, businesses and local governments. Nearly half of that was just from 2011 to 2013.

"So when someone tells me, 'We can't afford to pay for resilience,'" Sawislak said, "I immediately ask, 'How can we afford not to?'"

The fact that the state has gone without a hurricane for nearly a decade, since Wilma in 2005, is not lost on the many emergency managers, government leaders, weather specialists and scientists gathering through Friday in Orlando.

Gov. Rick Scott, in welcoming the conference, said, "I hope we don't have a hurricane for 50 years. That would be nice. But if we do, I know you'll do your job."

Since Wilma, the state has grown by 3 million people and Palm Beach County by 160,000. Many of them "have little or no understanding of what they should do or will do when a hurricane threatens," said Bill Johnson, conference chair and Palm Beach County emergency manager. He cited one national study showing 58 percent of 18- to 34-year -olds aren't thinking about disaster preparedness.

Johnson's Tallahassee counterpart, Florida Emergency Management Director Bryan Koon, said the "vast majority" of Floridians have no experience with a storm. But he said emergency managers are more prepared now; "we haven't taken those years lightly."

National Hurricane Center director Rick Knabb again went over new features the center is introducing this year. And, he said, "don't focus on the storm center. Look what Isaac did in Palm Beach County (in 2012) when the storm was hundreds of miles away."

"Resilience" specialist Sawislak defined that term as the ability to absorb shocks and stress and quickly recover.

"We can't prevent hurricanes any more than we can earthquakes or tornadoes," he said. "But we can become more resilient to their impacts."

He said building for future threats "is not that expensive; it's really pennies on the dollar. And it pays us back huge dividends when the next storm comes."

Sawislak also said that "anyone who lives southeast Florida doesn't need a fancy graph to know sea levels are rising."

New York alone, Sawislak said, is losing $1.7 billion a year to climate impacts and that number will grow to $4.4 billion, in 2015 dollars, by the 2050s.

That means just in that area, another Sandy would cost not $19 billion in damage and economic loss, but $35 million in 2022 and $90 billion in 2050. And that's also in 2015 dollars.

"This is money they, and we, cannot afford," he said.

Sawislak also noted that an exercise in resilience doesn't work if it's not done in concert with others.

In Sandy, the financial giant Goldman Sachs invested in a heat and power system, and its headquarters stayed lit when most of Manhattan was dark. But flooded roads and subways meant no employees could get to their clean, warm, lit offices.

Sandy and Hurricane Katrina represent the need for everything to be linked, Sawislak said.

Katrina "was not only a failure of systems and infrastructure. It was a failure of our society," he said.

"You want to blame FEMA, that's great. You want to blame the state of Louisiana, or the city of New Orleans, or the Army Corps (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers). You can even blame the French," he said, But, he said, "The real failure was to believe that any one group or organization can fix this problem. The real failure was to leave people in the city to fend for themselves."

After Katrina, he said, New Orleans leaders decided that, in the next storm, everyone had to be moved out of the city.

"But how do you do that in a city with 40,000 people without access to a car?" Sawislak asked.

So, he said, the city identified 17 points where people would meet buses. But signs were tiny and gave information people would need before they got there, such as what they could and couldn't bring on the bus. And pickup points were staffed only by National Guardsmen who didn't have many answers.

"Government is very good at the fair and equitable distribution of things, but they're not so good at speed or innovation," Sawislak said. But now, he said, New Orleans trains up to 500 evacuation volunteers and raised $300,000 to make better and bigger signs.

Resilience "is not just about where you build, or where you build, or how you build," he said. It's also about the roads, utilities and other features communities have in place. He cited research that every dollar spent preparing for disasters saves $4 in recovery costs; "those are just the hard costs, not the economic and social impact."

And, he said, "every day we wait increases the cost and the pain."

©2015 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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