The following editorial appeared in The Los Angeles Times on Jan. 4.
It's become an annual rite in Washington: An enormous storm or other natural disaster strikes, state and local officials cry out for aid, and members of Congress fight over how much to pay and where to find the money. The latest example is the brouhaha over a Senate bill to provide $60 billion in emergency funds to respond to Superstorm Sandy and other recent calamities. With the cost of such disasters growing, the country needs a better approach - one that does more to discourage the development and habitation of particularly vulnerable areas of the country and sets aside more realistic amounts to pay for damage that can't be anticipated or avoided.
Sandy's destruction was so great - property insurance claims alone are expected to be $25 billion, according to reinsurance giant Munich Re - that even the House GOP leadership dropped its usual demand to offset the spending with cuts elsewhere in the budget. Instead, the House balked at the amount of spending in the bill, especially the roughly $2 billion for regions not affected by Sandy and about $33 billion aimed at girding for future catastrophes.
Considering the frequency of multibillion-dollar natural disasters in recent years, governments should devote more resources to preparing for disasters, not less. But those efforts should be a priority within the administration's annual budget request, not tacked onto emergency funding bills.
Congress took an important step to discourage development in risky areas last year when it rewrote the rules for the federal flood insurance program, ending counterproductive subsidies for new buildings in flood-prone areas and for existing buildings that had suffered repeated flooding. Now, it needs to promote the same kind of sensitivity to risk broadly, so that state and local governments take a firmer stance against development that ignores the risk of wildfires, hurricanes, floods and earthquakes.
One way to do so would be to insist that state and local governments match at least part of the federal disaster aid they receive, which would make them more leery of lax building codes and overly permissive zoning. Although federal law currently calls for Washington to pay only 75 percent of the tab for disaster assistance, Congress often reduces or even waives that requirement in the face of catastrophic losses. That's a humane response, but it also creates a moral hazard.
Sandy's victims need federal help today, but in the long run, lawmakers should look for other approaches to disaster preparedness besides writing big checks. A good example is the California Earthquake Authority's proposal to use federal loan guarantees to reduce the cost of earthquake coverage, encouraging more people to obtain policies and, in the process, make their homes more quake-proof. Another idea is to provide tax incentives for local agencies to sell bonds to raise money for post-disaster repairs, as Congress has done for about a dozen states over the last decade. Rather than debating how much to spend in Sandy's wake, policymakers at all levels should be looking for ways to reduce the cost of the catastrophes that are sure to follow.