One of us lived through Superstorm Sandy 10 years ago and hoped that our broken disaster recovery system would be fixed after the glaring problems in getting help to communities was laid bare. But it was not. So now, the other of us had to live through Hurricane Ian last month. In these 10 years, our and so many other communities have been devastated by these storms and others, and unfortunately, it appears that our country has learned very little.
The pace, scale and cost of disasters are increasing at an alarming rate, but even more concerning is that our disaster recovery system remains the same. Presidents visit the scene, survey damage and meet survivors, pledge huge sums — then the headlines fade away. Inadequate federal aid packages are designated but reach the ground in dribs and drabs, often siphoned by private contractors along the way. When relief does flow, it prioritizes communities that already have resources to rebuild while our families and neighbors struggle. Storms are no longer a surprise — and yet, our federal government knows so little about how to anticipate them, get relief to communities hit worst and first, and rebuild in ways that make us more resilient and equitable.
Communities who cannot afford to evacuate are left to fend for themselves. Too often, people don’t evacuate because they simply can’t afford it. The governing body that coordinates disaster response for the federal government, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), struggles to get critical aid to people quickly. These communities then face impossible choices in the immediate aftermath of a storm because they must replace spoiled food or baby supplies while repairing a home or even moving. Those expenses, the cost of actually surviving, are often not even considered by FEMA to be reasonable expenses for approved purposes.
Communities with wealth are helped first because they are counted. Too much of the disaster recovery system prioritizes rebuilding and recovery for people with pre-existing wealth and high-value properties. As an extensive study in Houston after Hurricane Harvey revealed, FEMA systematically undercounts the impact of storms on socially vulnerable people or people who live in homes that aren’t appraised at high values. This undercounting leads to under-resourcing of recovery, and it means that areas with lower-value properties go to the back of the line for investment. After Sandy, back bay communities lamented — maybe if there was a boardwalk, or a rollercoaster someone would care if their communities were rebuilt.
Other communities wait too long for help. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) administered Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program, which provides long-term disaster recovery, must be reauthorized by Congress for each disaster. This means that communities wait months and sometimes years for significant recovery funds. There is no reason why CDBG-DR is not permanently authorized; it’s inexcusable given the increasing frequency and severity of disaster events.
Communities aren’t getting flood insurance because FEMA is making it more expensive. Flood insurance is vital to help people recover from disasters, but it’s increasingly out of reach at a time when we need insurance protections more than ever. FEMA implemented new risk ratings last year, which will result in an estimated 80 percent of policyholders facing increased premiums. If people can’t afford premiums, they drop out of the program, resulting in even more uninsured losses. The program must take steps to increase participation in the program and guard against dropout by capping annual premium increases, subsidizing coverage for homeowners with lower incomes, as well as communicating clearly and transparently about risks.
While the federal government fiddles, others swoop in to take advantage of the burning. There is almost no oversight for corporate waste, fraud and abuse, while the contractors and consultants are able to snap up sweetheart contracts with little oversight when major disaster recovery funding is on the line. We need expanded enforcement to ensure that companies don’t take money that should help individual survivors and families recover.
These issues transcend politics. One of us is from a red state, the other from a blue state. But it’s increasingly clear that politics is what will be required to force the federal government to reform. Our communities are coming together to provide mutual aid but also to organize for policy reform to better prepare us before climate events and to demand humane responses in their aftermath. We are building the political power and agency of people who never thought of themselves as leaders but who have lived, firsthand, what arcane federal policy failures mean in their lives. If the federal government isn’t bold enough to change the federal system on their own, they will be made to do so by people from New Jersey, Florida, Puerto Rico, Texas, Louisiana and more.
Amanda Devecka-Rinear is the founder and executive director of the New Jersey Resource Project, which was formed after Superstorm Sandy to keep working families in their homes.
Andrea Mercado is the co-executive director of Florida Rising, which organizes multiracial movements for economic and racial justice in Florida.
New Jersey Resource Project and Florida Rising have co-authored a report with organizations around the country outlining specific areas and recommendations for reform, released on the 10th anniversary of Superstorm Sandy.