On Disaster Recovery and Infrastructure Resilience, Transportation Takes a Back Seat—For Now

On Disaster Recovery and Infrastructure Resilience, Transportation Takes a Back Seat—For Now

July 20, 2018  | Alexander Laska

July 19, 2018

“It has been said critically that there is a tendency in many armies to spend the peace time studying how to fight the last war.” -Julian L. Schley, Lieutenant Colonel, Army Corps of Engineers, 1929

The origins of this age-old expression, now simply stated as “generals always prepare to fight the last war,” are difficult to trace, but its sentiment was on vivid display at the House Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management hearing on recovery from 2017’s natural disasters.

Informing the hearing was the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 2017 After-Action Report, which the agency released last week. The report provides a recap of the 2017 disaster season and outlines recommendations in five areas for how FEMA and its partners can improve emergency preparation and response ahead of future disasters.

One of the areas, logistics operations, is particularly relevant to transportation. The report states that FEMA experienced challenges in tracking and moving resources (such as food, bottled water, and other provisions) across multiple modes of transportation to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands following Hurricane Maria. The agency says it also provided logistical coordination to move and distribute the goods from staging areas to survivors—a task that should usually be managed by the state or territorial government but was rendered nearly impossible due to the widespread electrical and telecommunication outages in the territories.

The agency recommended increasing its readiness stocks outside the continental U.S. so that the commodities are starting closer to where they’re needed. It also recommended increasing its transportation planning and management capacities, streamlining its storage and movement procedures, and taking the time to better understand supply chains and build the relationships that will support rapid restoration of the transportation networks needed to bring goods to survivors.

Most mentions of transportation were about logistics, not about the infrastructure enabling the movement of staff and goods. By and large, when it came to infrastructure resilience the report largely focused on energy and communications infrastructure and housing stock. The report called for further investment in resilient electrical grids and better preparation for outages, as well as investment in survivable communications capabilities. On housing, the report recommended “federally supported, state managed, locally executed sheltering and housing solutions.”

Of course, this is all informed by their most recent experiences: Hurricane Maria took out 95 percent of cell towers and 80 percent of power lines in Puerto Rico. At the hearing, Jeffrey Byard, Associate Administrator, Office of Response and Recovery at FEMA, said the agency faced “last-mile logistical challenges” in Puerto Rico, largely because deployed FEMA staff and its partners had trouble communicating. (There was also a staffing shortage, and Byard said FEMA is hiring more people for its incident support teams to further expand the agency’s footprint for last-mile logistics.) Housing was also an issue, particularly following Hurricane Harvey, which forced 30,000 people out of their homes in Texas.

The 2017 report’s focus on energy and telecommunications infrastructure is a departure from its 2013 post-Sandy After-Action Report. In that report, transportation had a more front-and-center billing, again informed by the most recent experience. Sandy caused severe damage to transportation infrastructure, particularly in New York City: the NYC subway system flooded, causing the system to be shutdown south of 34th Street, and the Port of New York-New Jersey was also severely flooded. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assisted in pumping water out of those “critical” transportation assets. Outside of the city, families waited in hours-long lines to gas up their cars due to fuel shortages.

Energy infrastructure also featured prominently in that report, as over eight million homes were without power following Sandy—a record until Maria last year. The advent of a truly resilient grid is a perennial aspiration.

Making History

By any measure, 2017 was record-breaking for natural disasters in the U.S. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria ravaged Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean respectively, causing a combined $368.66 billion in damages—the costliest hurricane season on record. Harvey, one of the single most costly hurricanes in U.S. history, caused at least 83 deaths, over 30,000 displacements, and $200 billion in damages. It also broke record rainfall statistics, dumping nearly 52 inches of rain in parts of Texas. Irma resulted in 47 deaths and $50 billion in damages; it too broke a record, sustaining 185mph winds for 37 hours as it battered Florida. And Maria resulted in an extremely high (and highly uncertain) number of deaths, as well as $90 billion in damages, in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

And that’s just the storms. Meanwhile, wildfires swept across the American West, with over 66,000 fires burning over 9.7 million acres of land across 10 states. California alone saw over 7,000 of those, with strong Santa Ana winds catalyzing the destruction of over a half million acres of land.

All told, 59 major disasters were declared in 2017 under the Stafford Act, the law authorizing disaster declarations for FEMA public and individual assistance. Requests for federal disaster aid also jumped tenfold over 2016, with 4.7 million people registering with FEMA.

Preparing for the Unknown

Ultimately it is impossible to know what the next big storm. fire, or earthquake will bring, so it makes sense for FEMA to use the past as prologue when assessing in these reports how it can better prepare for next time.

And this preparation is hugely important. If one word came up during Wednesday’s hearing more than any other, it was “mitigation.” As Chairman Lou Barletta (R-PA) pointed out, for every dollar that is spent on mitigation, an average of six dollars of rebuilding/recovery can be avoided. Everyone on the panel, from R. David Paulison, former FEMA Administrator, to Patrick Sheehan, Director of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, agreed that FEMA and its partners—federal, state, and local—need to focus more on mitigation to reduce the severity of damages and the cost of recovery.

“It is beyond time to give serious consideration to why we continue to leave lives, homes, and communities vulnerable,” former Administrator Paulison said. “Mitigation can dramatically reduce the devastation caused by these disasters.”

The Subcommittee has a plan to ensure that refocus on mitigation happens: the Disaster Recovery Reform Act (DRRA, H.R. 4460), sponsored by Chairman Barletta, would place greater emphasis on pre-disaster mitigation by requiring six percent of all annual disaster spending to be spent on pre-disaster mitigation. Including two supplemental spending bills passed late last year, Congress appropriated $130 billion for the 2017 disaster season. While disaster spending fluctuates from year to year, using the 2017 figure as an example would mean $7.8 billion made available for mitigation. That’s a big jump: for comparison, FEMA, HUD, and the Economic Development Agency (EDA) have issued a combined $27 billion in mitigation grants over the past 23 years.

(The DRRA was passed out of the full House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in November 2017 and has been approved by the House twice – once as part of a supplemental appropriations bill passed in December, and once in the House version of the FAA reauthorization—but has never been passed by the Senate. The DRRA is not included in the draft Senate FAA bill text being circulated for possible floor action in August, partly because in the Senate, aviation and the Stafford Act are under different committees, whereas in the House they are both under T&I jurisdiction.)

But former Administrator Paulison cautioned the subcommittee to ensure the DRRA will not become a free giveaway to states. He recommended using the promise of federal cost-sharing to ensure interested states have mitigation plans in place and strong building codes to reduce the risk of destruction.

“Give money to states that have done things to reduce costs,” he advised. “Let’s make sure the states do what is necessary to mitigate the disaster costs, otherwise we’re just wasting our money.”

Despite the six-to-one returns of mitigation spending, and despite the bipartisan and cross-agency support for mitigation, the Trump Administration’s budget cuts preparedness grants by 29 percent and pre-disaster mitigation spending by 67 percent, as Committee ranking minority member Peter DeFazio (D-OR) was quick to point out.

Read FEMA’s 2017 After-Action Report here. Watch the hearing here.

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