The political “gotcha” began just hours after a tornado ripped through Moore, Okla., on Monday, killing at least 24 people, including nine children at the Plaza Towers Elementary School. The state’s senators, James Inhofe and Tom Coburn, have consistently voted against federal funding to support disaster relief, including for victims of Hurricane Sandy. What hypocrites, right? At least Coburn, holding firm to austerity though relenting on the need for relief, insisted that any help to his constituents be offset by cuts to other parts of the budget.
It turns out, fortunately for the Moore victims, that there is no need. Over $11 billion in disaster-relief funds is still available; that much exists only because the damage from Hurricane Sandy was so vast that it received its own special line item. That means Oklahoma victims will be taken care of — no thanks to their home-state senators. Nonetheless, Coburn, at least, has an important point: Disaster relief is often spent unwisely.
Federal disaster relief has long been directed at covering damage that has already occurred, rather than driving future behavior. The notion of a relief fund came about at a time when we believed that entirely unforeseeable events, whims of nature, might randomly strike any of us. As taxpayers, we contribute to such funds as an insurance policy for ourselves. But such a rainy day fund doesn’t work if it essentially rains every day.
Storms, droughts, heat waves, wildfires, floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes have taken their toll. Since 2011, there have been over 1,000 fatalities related to extreme weather; the price tag is close to $200 billion.
The way the rules are written regarding disaster relief encourages an attitude of “thank you, may I have another.” Based on the idea that disasters are flukes of nature, the laws focus only on making the victims whole again, exactly like they were before. The funds that eventually flow to victims, cities, and states prohibit any creative use of the money to protect against the next rainy day. The incentive structure is all off.
The possibilities for reform are limitless. The federal government could distribute disaster relief as block grants, giving states like Oklahoma a reason to minimize public damage by putting more resources into resilient building codes and zoning rules. Or the government could allow disaster relief to be spent on protective measures to ensure better safety for the next storms. One proposal would create a separate community resilience fund to pay for protections. Even tax relief or rebates could be provided to homeowners, private companies, and public institutions that take special precautions.
Few would challenge health insurance policies that promote anti-smoking or anti-obesity efforts through services or reduced fees. Behavior can change if the market is built that way. But for disasters, it isn’t.
There is a feeling that such requirements represent added government controls on behavior, especially those in more conservative states like Oklahoma. That may be true, but government can also promote the freedom from harm. Past experiences in Oklahoma are illustrative. The state, no stranger to tornadoes, does not legally require safe rooms or underground shelters. Indeed, after a similar massive tornado struck Moore in 1999, disaster funds were focused solely on helping homeowners to rebuild what they lost; houses were constructed in exactly the same manner as before.
Some homeowners may have wanted to rebuild in different ways, incorporating underground shelters or other provisions. Some may have chosen otherwise. But while homeowners may be free to choose, public institutions should not.
Perhaps no amount of protection could have saved the children of Plaza Towers who were stuck as the tornado hit straight on. Perhaps. But the disaster plans that existed for those children were the same ones that school children in Oklahoma have been practicing for a hundred years: wait it out in the hallways. The school, with a child-to-adult ratio of 4 to 1, had no shelter.
We don’t need to agree on why these natural disasters keep coming. What we need is to use federal funds to drive public and private behavior toward more robust preparedness. Disaster relief can no longer be thought of as a rainy day fund.
Given the world we live in now, it is always raining.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @juliettekayyem.