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Perspective | Globe Magazine

How our disaster relief system forces foolish decisions

Disasters keep happening, and taxpayers’ money keeps being doled out to rebuild the vulnerability, again and again.

Damage on Plum Island from a 2013 storm. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Despite deadlock in the federal government, local and state leaders are embracing creative policy options to mitigate the impact of a warmer earth. From state taxing policies that use the carrot-and-stick approach to promote better corporate and personal behavior to various local zoning laws that prohibit residential buildings in flood zones, this hodgepodge of efforts is coming from both sides of the aisle to prepare our society for Mother Nature’s growing wrath. And still, they will be inadequate.

It isn’t that these measures are useless; indeed, some are quite successful. It is that they rest on a homeland security and disaster management system that has barely changed with them. While resiliency efforts accept as a given that climate disasters are going to happen more frequently in the years to come, after they do, our system of remedies and relief is still based on the myth that they will never happen again.


Call it the “Thank you, Mother Nature, may I have another” school of disaster relief. After a disaster, governors and mayors rush to the federal till and insist, under the Stafford Act for funds distributed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, that they get their fair share of relief money. The laws practically require that an individual, city, or state rebuild exactly the same way, as if the damage was a fluke. That is insane.

Under these laws, there is no requirement that homeowners build farther back from the ocean (I’m looking at you, Plum Island residents), no requirement that a school eviscerated by a tornado build a shelter for the children, no requirement that a city prohibit residents from rebuilding too close to an often-flooding river. The disasters keep happening, and the money keeps being doled out to rebuild the vulnerability, again and again.

The problem is that the incentive structure is all off: The system favors negligent behavior because it provides no incentive to change and no penalties for making the same mistakes over and over. Not only is this a waste of taxpayer money, it is also fundamentally inconsistent with the goal of building a resilient society that must have the capacity to learn from the past.


In our everyday lives, we get this. Many of us, for example, have accidentally locked our child in a car; very few of us have done it twice. We understand that emergencies can’t always be avoided, but also that we can learn from them to avoid the same vulnerability in the future. Public safety agencies acknowledge the same. Active shooter protocols for schools — run first, then hide, and only engage with the enemy if necessary — are based on past cases, in particular the Columbine tragedy, when staying put ended up being the worst possible position for the kids hiding in the library.

Truly resilient societies learn from their vulnerabilities. Of course we want to get “back” to where we were, but we should also want to get better. And yet we essentially prohibit the very communities reeling from tragedy to build stronger.

There are, fortunately, some glimmers of hope. Earlier this year, FEMA quietly proposed a new approach to mitigation that would set up the equivalent of a disaster-relief insurance deductible for states. The deductible could be reduced in advance of a disaster by credits based on investments in resiliency, such as adopting enhanced building codes or investing in mitigation projects. This deductible idea is still in the proposal stage, but it is the first time that the disaster relief system policies accept that they should invest in helping to reduce the costs of future events for state and federal government. FEMA is reviewing public comments to these changes but is anticipating that such a fundamental shift will be slow and face some political backlash.


These reforms, though, can’t happen soon enough. It is obvious and irrefutable: Climate change is happening. Like Pope Urban VIII’s henchmen who imprisoned Galileo in the 17th century for claiming that the Earth was just one of several planets circling the sun, climate deniers are simply on the wrong side of history.

But this isn’t history. Updated projections issued in a June report from the University of Massachusetts said that climate change could cause, in a worst-case scenario, a sea level rise of more than 10 feet by 2100.

Whatever debate remains over whether the range of rise will be 3 to 6 feet or 6 to 10 feet, it doesn’t matter. Even with the rosiest of estimates, that’s a lot of flooding. At this stage, we simply don’t have the time to waste catering to those who would deny science. The planet is warming, the extreme weather is increasing, and the oceans are rising. Let’s learn and get ready.

But we’re not learning, at least not fast enough. We keep paying for disasters the same way that we did when we thought they were random and rare.


Juliette Kayyem served as a Homeland Security adviser to Governor Deval Patrick and as assistant secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration. The founder of Kayyem Solutions and a faculty member at the Kennedy School of Government, she is a WGBH contributor and the author of the new book “Security Mom.” Send comments to