Cities Share Local Perspective on Disaster Assistance

Article excerpt

"It seems to me you're looking for more of a carrot than a stick approach," Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) of the House Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee told NLC in responding to proposals and recommendations to help the nation's cities and towns reduce the costs in lives, property damage, and dollars from natural disasters.

The Chairman expressed support and interest in the NLC ideas and excitement about the concept of a joint partnership to mitigate future harm to communities.

Boehlert convened the hearing to examine the federal costs of natural disasters, just as the House, Senate, and White House engaged in a fierce battle about who should pay and how for emergency disaster recovery costs to communities across the nation. By the end of the hearing, Boehlert and his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Robert Borski (D-Pa.) appeared supportive of a joint approach and opposed to federal proposals to simply buck an ever increasing share of disaster costs onto the backs of state and local governments.

"We want to begin a process of creating a partnership to reduce the costs of natural disasters -- in dollars, lives, and destroyed natural and real property -- to all three levels of government. We would like to end the current game of hot potato, or efforts to simply shift the costs to other levels of government, while avoiding addressing the real issues," NLC's witness, Frank Shafroth, NLC's Director of Policy and Federal Relations testified. "To that end, Mr. Chairman, we strongly urge rejection of continued efforts to add disproportional insult to injury by cutting only domestic discretionary funds already appropriated by Congress as a means to offset natural disaster costs. Those cuts, rejected by the Senate and White House this year, are likely to lead to worse damage the next time around, because they will reduce funds that could be used to make a longer term difference."

The hearing came as the House Appropriations or funding committee insisted upon cutting current year funds to states and local governments to finance both disaster relief and U.S. military operations in Bosnia. Both the Senate and White House rejected the House approach, which both violates the 1997 Balanced Budget Act and imposes penalties on hard-hit communities through reductions in current grant funds for housing, airport safety, education, and volunteer assistance.

Instead of the current federal policy of penalizing communities after the fact, Shafroth urged a more far-sighted approach: "We believe a joint effort to invest in prevention and mitigation could do more to help federal, state, and local budgets, lives, and property than juggling the hot potato. We believe a federal study to determine the prevention and mitigation efforts that have proven most cost- and people-preventative, followed by a joint prevention and mitigation effort would produce positive results. Part of that study, in our view, ought to include a clear reevaluation of current insurance and other incentives and alternatives available to states and local governments to help protect against and prevent such damage and loss of life. In short, we would like to look beyond today and make an earnest effort to be better prepared for tomorrow."

Albert Capellini, mayor of Deerfield Beach, Fla., also testified on panel with the James Lee Witt, the Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): "I come here today as a representative of the hundreds of communities in our country who have not waited for the federal government to come to the rescue after a disaster or to bail us out. We have been proactive and are taking responsible actions to address the perils to our businesses and citizens."

Capellini told the committee his city lives with the constant and real threat of a major hurricane. Over the last 75 years, the city has been hit by seven major hurricanes, including a 1928 storm that killed over 2,000 people. …