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States’ Spending on Natural Disasters Is Largely Unknown: Report

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 6/19/2018 Susan Milligan
Rescue workers and volunteers help to rescue residents of an apartment complex after it was inundated with water following Hurricane Harvey on August 30, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Harvey, which made landfall north of Corpus Christi August 25, has dumped nearly 50 inches of rain in and around Houston. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images): Rescue workers and volunteers help to rescue residents of an apartment complex after it was inundated with water following Hurricane Harvey. © (Scott Olson/Getty Images) Rescue workers and volunteers help to rescue residents of an apartment complex after it was inundated with water following Hurricane Harvey.

Natural disasters are becoming more frequent and more expensive, a trend that is likely to continue. But states – which bear a good portion of the burden of preparing for and recovering from such events, aren't even sure how much they're dedicating to the problem, a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts finds.

The devastation from last year alone, when Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria hit, led to "unprecedented mobilization" of government resources to help damaged communities, the report said. And those disasters followed a series of destructive events, from floods and hurricanes to wildfires and blizzards. In fact, Pew found, all 50 states and the District of Columbia experienced a disaster severe enough to warrant a federal emergency or disaster declaration between 2005-14. Such declarations are important because they allow for release of federal assistance funds.

But the overwhelming majority of states don't have a complete picture of how much money they are spending on disaster preparedness and relief, the report said. And that, Pew report project director Anne Stauffer told reporters in a conference call, both complicates the ability of states to get the federal aid they having coming to them and makes it harder to plan.

States are required to spend a certain sum - $1.46 per capita - before they can qualify for federal disaster assistance, Stauffer said. But since states have numerous agencies, aside from their respective emergency management agencies, contributing to such efforts, it's not always clear what the aggregate spending is. "That could translate into states shouldering more of the costs before the federal government would provide funding," she said.

Only 23 states provided data for the report, just eight — Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Wyoming — had comprehensive data on their spending efforts.

Several states, however, are taking steps to direct more resources toward mitigation, the report said. Mitigation means strengthening building and infrastructure so it can withstand a storm better. The efforts align with what Congress and FEMA are pushing - FEMA's "Mitigation Moonshot" envisions a quadrupling of mitigation spending by federal, state and local governments as well as nonprofits and private entities. They include:

  • Arkansas, which has invested more than $10 million to reimburse property owners to provide tornado safe rooms, and help to local governments for infrastructure strengthening
  • Iowa, which is 2012 established a Flood Mitigation Board
  • North Dakota, which has spent nearly $226 million for local flood control
  • Ohio, which has spent $11 million on riverside flooding projects, and
  • Oregon, which has spent nearly $36 million for earthquake retrofits for public buildings.

In 2017, natural disasters caused a record $306 billion in damage in the U.S. alone, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Harvey was the most expensive storm, costing $125 billion in property damage and aid and relief spending.

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