Op-Ed

Congress must fund infrastructure improvement before disasters happen | Opinion

Residents look at road in Alligator Point, Florida, that collapsed during the storm surge from Hurricane Hermine in 2016.
Residents look at road in Alligator Point, Florida, that collapsed during the storm surge from Hurricane Hermine in 2016. Getty Images

The federal government needs a plan.

In Washington, the simple and commonsense approach to solving a problem often attracts the least attention. Nowhere is that more evident than in Washington’s approach to disaster spending, an issue that the Miami Herald Editorial Board highlighted earlier this month in “FEMA pitches financial hurricane readiness, but the numbers don’t add up in Floridians’ favor“.

The real problem lies with the fact that the current system prioritizes post-disaster spending on damaged infrastructure over completing pre-disaster mitigation projects. Today, too many federal disaster-recovery programs seek to put things back the way they were the day before the storm. This is flawed policy, as clearly the pre-storm condition was unable to withstand the impacts of the disaster. This is especially true when you look at our nation’s infrastructure.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 40 percent of bridges over 50 years old and 20 percent of highway miles are in poor condition. From New York to California, deteriorating roads and bridges are succumbing to flooding and severe weather at an alarming rate, and yet the federal government continues to play out its well-known broken cycle of hemorrhaging money through programs like the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Emergency Relief (ER) fund and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Public Assistance, ignoring the growing crisis.

While these figures are shocking, they are made worse by the fact that since 2000, every state has received public assistance from FEMA to repair roads and bridges for a total of more than $7.5 billion, and the FHWA’s Emergency Relief program has received more than $15 billion in supplemental funding on top of its annual $100 million appropriation to respond to disaster-related damage to infrastructure.

But reactionary federal spending of nearly $25 billion during the past 18 years hasn’t produced results. We are no better off. No improvements, no innovation. Instead, we are barely clinging to adequacy.

It is clear that the status quo is inadequate. It’s time to stop wasteful spending and repeated repairs and instead invest in quality upgrades and redesign through effective mitigation tactics that buy down risk, save lives and reduce financial strain.

When it comes to planning for the future and stopping this massive spending, the federal government should look to Florida where we proved that investments in mitigation work.

Before Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Florida’s Division of Emergency Management invested $19 million in mitigation projects. These projects later withstood a direct hit from Matthew, resulting in avoided losses following just a single storm of more than $81 million — a single-impact return on investment of 422 percent. Additionally, a study by the National Institute of Building Sciences concluded that for every $1 spent on hazard mitigation, $6 are saved in future disaster costs.

Failing to prepare for storms by rejecting investments in mitigation for our roads and bridges has placed families at risk and caused astonishingly wasteful spending. Roads, bridges and highways identified by the states as repeatedly requiring repair and reconstruction because of disasters, like flooding, must be addressed with comprehensive solutions.

It’s time for Congress to allow the commonsense approach to prevail and invest in the future strength of our country. By establishing a program at the Federal Highway Administration focused on pre-disaster mitigation investments, the federal government can give states the tools they need to implement long-term transportation strategies and stop wasteful spending by delivering safer infrastructure that withstands storms, keeps families safe and helps communities recover more quickly.

Wes Maul was director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management under Gov. Rick Scott.

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