Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) have introduced legislation aimed at improving the nation’s capability to recover from major and catastrophic disasters by reforming the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.
The bill, which is called the Disaster Recovery Act of 2011, builds on recommendations from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the National Emergency Management Association, the International Association of Emergency Managers, the Association of State Floodplain Managers, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National Commission on Children and Disasters and the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD).
“As a senator from Louisiana, I have witnessed numerous systemic failures, misguided policies, and squandered opportunities in the way we go about facilitating community recovery after a disaster and dedicated myself as a result of those experiences to fixing these problems,” Sen. Landrieu said. “This legislation will ensure the federal government has the right tools in its toolbox to help communities recover from disasters in a smarter and more efficient way.”
“Hurricanes Katrina and Rita taught us some hard lessons. We learned that existing federal law is ill-suited to facilitate long-term recovery from catastrophic incidents. Over the past six years, we have often been forced to work on an ad hoc, congressionally-led basis to overcome the shortcomings and bureaucratic red tape built into the current law,” Sen. Cochran said. “Our bipartisan disaster recovery legislation takes what we’ve learned from the ongoing Katrina and Rita recovery efforts to improve future long-term disaster recovery from disasters of such magnitude.”
The Stafford Act authorizes various forms of federal assistance to state and local governments, certain nonprofit organizations and individuals in the event of a Presidentially declared emergency or disaster. Since its enactment in 1988, it has been significantly revised by the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 and the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006.
While these changes have strengthened FEMA’s capacity to support hazard mitigation and emergency response, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita revealed inadequacies in the law’s ability to support comprehensive disaster recovery.
The bill would reform the Stafford Act by doing the following:
• Establishing pre-conditions and special procedures for a new catastrophic disaster declaration that would trigger more intensive tracking of funds, use of recovery metrics to measure return on federal investments and a coordination structure to reduce waste, close recovery gaps, and ensure that programs work in unison rather than silos. The scale of the damage and the volume of federal funding that follow catastrophic events requires better management, transparency and accountability.
• Re-authorizing two expired pilot programs from the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act for rental housing and debris removal that were determined by FEMA and GAO to save taxpayers money and expedite recovery.
• Providing incentives for state and local governments to adopt and enforce building codes, develop pre-incident recovery plans and pre-negotiate contracts.
• Helping the environment by allowing locals to keep proceeds from recycled debris and encouraging energy-efficient rebuilding designs.
• Addressing the unique needs of children in disasters, which will allow parents to get back to work and focus on rebuilding their home or business.
• Making the application process for public assistance more user-friendly for state and local governments with the help of a catalog of disaster programs and a consolidated application for federal recovery assistance.
• Streamlining regulations and reducing bureaucratic waste by consolidating requirements for environmental, historic and benefit-cost reviews across different federal agencies for recovery projects.
• Improving training, certification, delivery models and information sharing for case management and crisis counseling and the faith-based groups and nonprofit organizations that provide these services.
• Establishing credentialing, training and evaluation requirements for FEMA employees, strengthening contractor oversight, requiring staffing plans for catastrophes, establishing project transfer procedures for rotating personnel, and encouraging the use of local hires in recovery field offices.
• Eliminating a perverse incentive in the law to use high-priced contract labor for emergency work instead of local government employees, which will save the federal government millions of dollars.
• Codifying temporary legislative measures that were enacted to facilitate a smarter recovery after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, including third-party arbitration of prolonged disputes and lump sum payments for criminal justice systems, school districts and other facility owners to strategically plan their reconstruction program without having to rebuild every structure to its pre-disaster condition in the exact same location.