We have to make government work better
June is upon us, bringing with it the things we love about summer in South Louisiana: longer days, snowballs, cicadas buzzing in the background and maybe a family trip to the beach. It’s also the time of year to keep a watchful eye on the Gulf of Mexico as we’re making plans to beat the heat – June is the official start of the Atlantic Hurricane Season. Despite the unusual, 9 year drought of Category 3 storms making US landfall, Louisiana natives know that the run of luck can’t hold forever.
The Congressional Budget Office recently released a report predicting that federal costs associated with hurricane damage could rise 39% in coming decades, attributing the increase to climate conditions and development trends along our nation’s coast. Regardless what the exact figures turn out to be, we know it won't get cheaper - that's why I've been outspoken about shifting the federal paradigm on disaster management and community resilience.
We’ve spent hundreds of billions of dollars on disaster response as a country, but a fraction of that could have been spent to prevent damages. Multiple government and independent reports show that every one dollar invested in prevention and resiliency saves as much as four dollars in disaster response costs. But our government is stuck on stupid: instead of making these investments on the frontend, it’s dead-set on this broken process of coming in after a disaster and spending exponentially more dollars. We have to break this cycle and redesign policies around resiliency to stop hemorrhaging billions of dollars after the fact - that approach is wasteful and leaves our communities, economies and ecosystems just as susceptible as they were before the event.
Earlier this year, I supported House passage of a bill reauthorizing the programs and activities of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and we worked hard to ensure that it included language to lay the groundwork for a paradigm shift. The bill commissions an assessment of trends in disaster losses—their causes and amounts—and requires the agency to submit recommendations to Congress on how to reduce losses and produce savings for taxpayers. Last month, we advanced legislation authorizing US Army Corps of Engineers programs and included provisions to accelerate completion timelines for water resources development projects critical to the structural resiliency of our communities. The bill also empowers local entities and cuts costly bureaucratic barriers that impede the progress of these projects – like the 44-year study of the West Shore Lake Pontchartrain Project, which is now finally set to be authorized.
Despite advancements in the world around them, agencies like FEMA and the Corps of Engineers largely operate today the same way they have since their inception. For example, FEMA was established at the end of the 1970's to coordinate response efforts in the wake of disasters and mostly applies the same, decades-old mentality in 2016. But static solutions will never fix dynamic problems – like the rapidly changing conditions along Louisiana’s coast. Coordinating relief efforts is absolutely important, but it's only one component of how we ought to be thinking about disaster management and should not be the core mission of our federal disaster agency. Its core mission should be prevention, i.e., “how can we best invest today to prepare for and reduce the severity and expense of inevitable natural occurrences?”
Why is changing the approach so difficult? You know the answer: government is change averse. Self-preservation and bureaucratic complacency have a vice grip on the status quo. But the status quo is preventing better service for taxpayers who want and should demand better – and it’s putting people in harm’s way.
Unlike a storm brewing in the Gulf, a disturbance in Washington is exactly what we need, and being an agent of that change gets me out of bed in the morning. We're going to untangle this bureaucracy and make government work - one agency at a time.