U.S. taxpayer spending on disaster aid soars amid climate, population trends
Hawaii needs funding after volcanic eruptions sprayed lava on homes, bridges and roads. Thousands of farmers in Georgia and Florida were wiped out last year by Hurricane Michael, one of the strongest hurricanes to ever make landfall in the United States.
In March, Nebraska and Iowa suffered among the worst floods in their history. California is trying to rebuild after last year's deadliest and most destructive wildfire in its history. And Puerto Rico is still looking for emergency reconstruction money after Hurricane Maria killed thousands in 2017.
U.S. senators are fighting over the details of an approximately $13 billion disaster aid package to help these states and Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory. But congressional feuding over disaster aid is unlikely to stop even after the current impasse is resolved. In a typical year, taxpayer spending on the federal disaster relief fund is almost 10 times higher than it was three decades ago, even after adjusting for inflation, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal data.
Experts say the surge in disaster spending reflects the effects of climate change and the growth of people and infrastructure in disaster-prone regions, such as the Gulf Coast. The federal government released a more than 1,000-page report last fall finding that climate change is affecting the U.S. economy.
The disaster relief fund, administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, accounts for about 44 percent of all emergency disaster money, according to an analysis of federal data by Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonpartisan organization.
"We're seeing a lot more extremes, both in where we're allowing people to build and in the climate," said Elizabeth Zimmerman, former associate administrator at the Office of Response and Recovery at FEMA. "You're seeing many more of these really bad disasters - the weather is intensifying - and people have really been allowed to build in places where they shouldn't."
As global temperatures rise, the federal government has faced far more billion-dollar disasters - those causing at least $1 billion in damages. From 1980 through 2018, the U.S. government faced, on average, only six such in a given year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But of the most recent five years on record - from 2014 to 2018 - the United States has seen an average of 13 billion-dollar disasters every year.
Three of the past six years have seen the highest federal spending on disaster relief on record, according to federal data.
"We keep having these very large events, at the catastrophic level, that have large spending reverberations," said Patrick Roberts, a professor at Virginia Tech who studies federal disaster responses, citing hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and Maria. "There have been a series of big, extreme events in the multi-hundred-million, even billion-dollar loss category."
In the 1970s and 1980s, spending on the federal disaster relief fund often remained at or below an annual $1 billion in today's dollars, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan government agency. It soared to $4 billion in the late 1990s, before nearly doubling again in the two decades since.
Now, it's close to $8 billion a year.
To show the larger trend, The Washington Post adjusted each year's total for inflation and estimated the typical, or median, spending level for the disaster fund in the preceding decade. Because the median focuses on the middle observations from that time period, it excludes extreme outliers such as 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina, when disaster relief spending hit about $88 billion, adjusted for inflation.
It also excludes years such as 2009, when just $1.6 billion was spent on disaster relief.
The analysis probably underestimates the problem. It leaves out other key sources of disaster aid money, such as disaster relief grants awarded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Additionally, these numbers do not account for the burden shouldered by state and local governments in responding to disasters. Researchers with the Pew Charitable Trusts said last year it was difficult to calculate the total cost of state spending on natural disasters, urging state lawmakers to improve data collection. A FEMA program designed to assist state and local governments with debris removal and infrastructure repair had eight of its most expensive years ever in the decade between 2007 and 2016.
Many more Americans have moved into harm's way, with growth exploding in the Gulf Coast region and along the Continental Divide, where tornadoes frequently occur, according to a study on the "expanding bull's eye effect" by Stephen Strader of Villanova University and Walker Ashley of Northern Illinois University.
Since 1970, 35 million more people and their homes have moved to coastal shoreline "in the direct path of potentially devastating storm surges," the researchers found, a 40 percent increase.
"We've put more stuff in the wrong place the wrong way," said W. Craig Fugate, a former FEMA administrator under President Barack Obama. "We've got a lot more stuff - bigger houses, multiple cars, more people - in high-hazard areas."
Experts also agree climate change is contributing to the severity and cost of the natural disasters that have battered the United States.
Several leading hurricane scientists published a report in February finding that hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean have intensified significantly, in part because of climate change. Over the course of about three decades, the percentage of Atlantic storms rapidly intensifying has dramatically increased, the study found.
The major report released last fall, produced by 13 federal departments and agencies, said: "This report draws a direct connection between the warming atmosphere and the resulting changes that affect Americans' lives, communities, and livelihoods, now and in the future ... the evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming and continues to strengthen, that the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country, and that climate-related threats to Americans' physical, social, and economic well-being are rising."
Congressional debates over disaster aid have changed as the risks have increased. Throughout the 1990s, lawmakers routinely - and without rancorous debate - approved money for regions hurt by disasters, said Jim Manley, a longtime Hill aide who worked for former Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
But lawmakers have more recently sparred over disaster aid for those in the Northeast struck by Hurricane Sandy, and are feuding over additional aid for Puerto Rico, which was walloped by Hurricane Maria.
"These aid packages - 20 years ago, they'd be few and far between. And the attitude among members was, 'There but for the grace of God go me and my constituents,' " Manley said. "You're hearing this more and more as a part of the debate."
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