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Disaster Recovery Report Says Texas Must Rethink Its Long-Term Recovery Efforts

Creating funding and mitigation efforts at the local levels should replace ‘top-down’ approach.

A report on the recovery of Hurricane Harvey, by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research and the Hart Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, says the disaster recovery system in the region is not sustainable and creates a moral hazard by rewarding risky behavior.

The report, Rethinking Disaster Recovery and Mitigation Funding in the Wake of Hurricane Harvey, includes findings that suggest a top-down funding approach handcuffs local communities in developing mitigation plans and that, as a whole, Texas’ long-term hazard mitigation planning efforts have failed.

The report suggests that residents know they will get bailed out if a catastrophe happens and thus, are encouraged to engage in risky behavior by building in flood plains.

The report said the top-down funding approach requires localities to conform their mitigation plans to a regional structure creates less flexibility and can lead to more rigid response and longer-term responses. Localities should be able to say, “Here’s the mitigation tool we think we need” but that requires additional coordination that doesn’t happen by practice in Texas and other states with this approach.

“We really need a whole new scheme,” said Harris County CEO Ed Emmett, after Hurricane Harvey. “Hopefully this will be a wake-up call.”

A solution is to encourage states and localities to “fill in the gaps,” left by federal funding,” and to invest more upfront for mitigation, according to Kyle Shelton, the Kinder Institute director of strategic partnerships and an author of the report. “The thrust of our argument is that the federal system as we have it encourages people to build wherever they want really, in risky places over and over again because there’s an assumption that federal money will come in and save the day in the worst situations,” Shelton said.

The report doesn’t advocate eliminating federal funding from the equation but advances the notion that it is crucial for every level to invest in mitigation, especially from the state level and below. Creating funds at those lower levels will save everyone money in the long run, the report contends.

“Almost all the mitigation funding is federal so there are few places that proactively do local or regional mitigation, specifically to reduce hazards,” Shelton said. “Harris County has a very active [program] and is always doing big projects and working with the [Army Corps of Engineers].
But in terms of a coordinated plan that is not just an infrastructure plan but also includes policy and land use regulation, that is generally lacking, Shelton said.

Those funds created locally could also be used for recovery, if the need arises. “We’re not just saying you should only devote those funds to mitigation, although that is probably the best investment a city could make and it’s also opening up channels to help speed recovery,” Shelton said.

The report suggests there is a disconnect between the FEMA mitigation requirements and the actual entities that can make those happen and that there needs to be more local control over what mitigation projects are undertaken and how the money can be spent.

“When you don’t have local control of the funding, it divorces the funding from the actual decision-makers,” Shelton added. “There are reforms that can happen to allow local entities to say, ‘This is what we need for mitigation,’ because the contexts are different between, say, Houston and California.”

It doesn’t have to be a lot of money that is devoted to mitigation. A little goes a long way in aiding eventual recovery and resilience. Anything that reduces risk also reduces cost during a response and recovery.

The report also recommended changes for the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Many of the homes insured by the program are not paying enough for the risk they are under so the NFIP isn’t getting its money’s worth. There are not enough people paying into the program and, because the program exists, people are taking the risk of building in risky places. All of that has thrown off the initial calculation of what it would take to make the program solvent.