WASHINGTON – As a snowstorm prepared to blanket the nation’s capital, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official told the Senate on Wednesday that extreme weather comes with a sizable price tag and the trend is likely to continue unless state and local governments improve efforts to prepare for natural disasters.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing came just weeks after a surprise snowstorm paralyzed Atlanta and just hours before Congress recessed and got out of town before a foot or more of snow moved in.
In his opening statement, the committee’s chairman, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), said that extreme weather events seem to be the “new norm.”
“Events like Superstorm Sandy, which came to our shores in the mid-Atlantic a year or so ago, and recent wildfires in other parts of the country, dangerous tornadoes, historic droughts — it may well be just the tip of the iceberg of what’s to come. And even today, the East Coast is preparing for yet another snowstorm, while the West Coast is experiencing a historic drought and increased fire danger with no end in sight.”
Carper sought to avoid a discussion of climate change, saying the hearing was not intended to “hash out climate science,” but rather to find common ground on the costs – both economic and lives affected – of not being prepared for extreme weather.
“For years, I’ve been working with a number of our colleagues to address the root causes and unfolding effects of what I believe is one of the biggest challenges of our generation: climate change,” Carper said. “According to the U.S. global change research program, extreme weather events have increased in frequency over the last 50 years or so and are expected to become even more common, more intense and more costly.”
David Heyman, assistant secretary for policy at DHS, said the economic losses sustained in the U.S. in the past 30 years totaled $1.15 trillion.
In 2011, there were 98 presidentially declared disasters and the U.S. experienced 14 natural disasters, exceeding a billion dollars in cost each, a record number in both cases.
“Without a concerted effort – national resilience effort, the trend is likely to continue,” he warned.
Heyman said that investing in resilience efforts in both new and old structures is very important, citing a study by the Multi-Hazard Mitigation Council that determined for every dollar the U.S. government spent on mitigation, it saved an average four dollars post-disaster.
States like Delaware have invested in improving storm resilience and the investment has paid off, according to state officials.
Collin O’Mara, secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources, said that for every dollar his state has invested in shore protection it has received $10 in storm protection value.
O’Mara said states that support storm preparation are suffering when the federal government assists ill-prepared communities that have failed to invest in storm preparation.
“We need to stop rewarding communities that fail to prepare. Right now, a state like Delaware that’s spent a lot of state and local money doesn’t receive as much after a disaster because our systems work,” O’Mara said.
Heyman said DHS is starting a pilot program called Resilience STAR based on the Energy STAR program that would set voluntary standards for building and disaster preparedness that will help communities respond to disasters much more quickly.