As Storms Keep Coming, FEMA Spends Billions in ‘Cycle’ of Damage and Repair

Oct 8, 2018

DAVANT, La. — In the exact spot where Hurricane Katrina demolished the Plaquemines Parish Detention Center, a new $105 million jail now hovers 19 feet above the marsh, perched atop towering concrete pillars. Described by a state official as the “Taj Mahal” of Louisiana corrections, it has so much space that one of every 27 parish residents could bunk there.

But on an average day in the first half of this year, more than 40 percent of its 872 beds went unoccupied, making it one of the emptiest jails in the state, records show. And because of its isolated, flood-prone location, the jail still must be evacuated before any major storm or risk becoming an accidental Alcatraz.

There is but one reason the Plaquemines jail was rebuilt on endangered land, with needless capacity, at immense cost: The sheriff wanted it that way. But unlike most new jail construction, his project did not have to be financed through bond sales or other local revenues, with voters able to hold him accountable. Rather, because the old jail was destroyed by a natural disaster, the cost was covered by federal taxpayers, through a Federal Emergency Management Agency program that is required by law to distribute billions in aid but exerts little control over how the money is spent.

FEMA’s public assistance program has provided at least $81 billion in this manner to state, territorial and local governments in response to disasters declared since 1992, according to a New York Times analysis of federal data. But an examination of projects across the country’s ever-expanding flood zones reveals that decisions to rebuild in place, often made seemingly in defiance of climate change, have at times left structures just as defenseless against the next storm.

Other efforts have required enormously expensive engineering to ensure protection. Yet in some instances, restrictions on construction in flood plains have effectively prohibited FEMA from safeguarding its multimillion-dollar investments in new and repaired public buildings.

One of every five public assistance dollars has streamed here to this quintessentially vulnerable place, Louisiana — by far the most per capita of any state. But billions more will soon flow from Washington to the states and territories devastated by the ferocity of the past two hurricane seasons. Last year, estimated to be the costliest ever with $306.2 billion in damage, saw back-to-back assaults by Harvey on Texas, Irma on Florida, Maria on Puerto Rico and Nate on Mississippi. Last month, Florence submerged the Carolinas, damaging public structures ranging from a high school in Jacksonville, N.C., to the town hall in North Topsail Beach.

Local officials desperate to restore normalcy to disoriented communities will get to decide how to spend those federal dollars — choices made more consequential, and costly, as sea levels rise and Atlantic storms generate greater surge and rainfall because of climate change. What once seemed random climatic misfortune now occurs more predictably. Coastal scientists and disaster recovery experts agree that if rebuilding in the same place once dared lightning to strike twice, it now tempts a more certain fate.

“Human settlements have been designed in a way that reflects a climate of the past, and this increases the likelihood that disaster-related losses will continue to rise,” said Gavin Smith, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who directs the Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence, a research consortium funded by the Department of Homeland Security. “This also means we need to rethink how and where we build before the storm, as well as how and where we reconstruct public buildings and infrastructure in the aftermath of extreme events.”

For evidence, visit Princeville, N.C., a town of 2,000 on the Tar River. In 1999, a hurricane named Floyd engorged the river until it spilled over a levee, ruining the town hall, Princeville Elementary School, the police and fire station, the senior center and virtually every other structure.

“I thought, ‘Once in a lifetime,’” said Mayor Bobbie Darnell Jones, who was rescued from his house by helicopter.

Leaders of the town, which was settled by newly emancipated slaves, rejected suggestions from state officials to move the entire community to higher ground. Instead, FEMA spent more than $5 million in public assistance grants to clear debris, build a new town hall and school, repair other buildings and replace fire trucks, a garbage truck, even a riding lawn mower, the agency’s records show.

Seventeen years later, Hurricane Matthew swamped Princeville once again. Repairs are now being made to the school, the fire house, the town hall, the recreation center, the senior center and a museum, at a cost of $2.5 million and counting (the town typically pays a 25 percent share). In mid-September, Princeville narrowly missed its third inundation in two decades, when Florence filled the Tar just shy of flood stage.

Since at least 1950, an empathetic nation has supported the impulse to rebuild in place by financing much of the cost of disaster recovery through the federal budget. But the process adheres to the American conviction that, regardless of who pays, decisions about land use and infrastructure should be made as locally as possible.

With local officials often incentivized to replicate the past, experts in disaster relief say changes in federal law and regulations may be needed to reorient the system to reflect climate realities.

Yet the Trump administration, if anything, is moving in the opposite direction. In August last year, President Trump rescinded an executive order signed by President Barack Obama that required consideration of climate science in the design of federally funded projects. In some cases, that had meant mandatory elevation of buildings in flood-prone areas. Then in March, FEMA released a four-year strategic plan that stripped away previous mentions of climate change and sea-level rise.

Despite repeated requests over five months, FEMA’s public affairs office declined to make the agency’s embattled administrator, Brock Long, or other top policymakers available for comment. Mr. Long has come under fire recently for using government vehicles for personal travel, and FEMA has been heavily criticized for its response to Hurricane Maria, which Puerto Rico estimates took nearly 3,000 lives.

The Trump administration’s approach on climate change ignores loud warnings from government agencies about the budgetary threat it poses. The bipartisan Congressional Budget Office projected in 2016, for instance, that hurricane damage would “increase significantly in the coming decades because of the effects of climate change and coastal development.” As a result, government spending for relief and recovery will outpace economic growth and devour an ever larger share of gross domestic product, the analysts concluded.

“You can’t continue this with the pace and intensity of events we’ve seen today,” said James Lee Witt, who led FEMA throughout the Clinton administration. “Somebody has got to break the cycle of damage, repair, damage, repair.”

FEMA’s public assistance program is among the largest in a menu of post-disaster programs overseen by several federal agencies. It has grown substantially more costly over time. From 1992 through mid-September, it paid for 683,035 separate projects — removing debris after natural disasters (mostly hurricanes and floods) and repairing and reconstructing public buildings, roads, bridges and utilities — according to a computer analysis of agency data by The Times. More was spent on public assistance during that period than on reimbursements by FEMA’s better-known National Flood Insurance Program, which covers losses by homeowners and businesses.

Grants have gone to every state and territory, with New York and Louisiana the biggest recipients because of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. About a fourth of the money has been used to repair and replace public buildings.

In most instances, grants cover at least 75 percent of the cost to return a damaged building to its prior state while also complying with current codes. If the cost of repair is more than half that of replacement, FEMA will pay to build anew. The program also provides grants for hazard mitigation to minimize future damage.

When structures in designated flood plains are rebuilt or repaired, FEMA requires that they be elevated to at least the 100-year flood level — high enough, that is, to withstand a storm with only a 1 percent chance of occurring in a year. Buildings that serve a critical function, like hospitals or power plants, must be raised to the 500-year level.

The agency can pay to relocate destroyed buildings if it is deemed cost-effective, but it often isn’t. In New York City, FEMA spent more than $700 million — with the city pitching in $80 million more — to repair 72 schools damaged during Sandy. But the city’s high cost of real estate and construction dictated that only one would be moved, to an adjacent site where it will be elevated, according to the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency.

Instead, the money was spent on measures that accepted the inevitability of future flooding, like raising vents, relocating electrical systems to rooftops and replacing drywall with building materials that could be easily dried and disinfected.

Since Sandy, Congress has twice amended the law that authorizes federal disaster aid, the Stafford Act, to make it more financially attractive to use public assistance grants to relocate and to rebuild more responsibly. Mr. Trump signed a bill last week to provide more FEMA funding for projects designed to diminish future storm damage in vulnerable communities. None of those measures, however, fundamentally alters the balance of power between federal and local officials concerning those decisions.

Determining how much has been spent to rebuild the same structures more than once is impossible, because of a lack of transparency in publicly available data. FEMA’s records provide a location for the grant recipient, a project number and an amount, but often only vague descriptions like “public buildings and facilities.”

But the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, recently found that the separate flood insurance program had paid $5.5 billion from 1978 to 2015 to repair and rebuild more than 30,000 properties that had flooded more than once. Claims for those residences and businesses had been submitted an average of five times.

The group’s report estimated that the number of “severe repetitive loss properties” could balloon to 820,000 if coastal sea levels rose three feet by the end of the century, which scientists consider possible. It recommended that the government restructure the program with incentives to encourage owners to take buyouts and move.

Critics see both FEMA programs as symptomatic of a disjointed and backward-looking approach to disaster planning that devotes inordinate resources to rebuilding at the expense of prevention.

“The fundamental problem is that the entire system is reactive,” said Jeff Hebert, vice president for adaptation and resilience at the Water Institute of the Gulf, a Louisiana-based research group. “It would be transformational if we took the money that we spend on disasters and instead spent it on the front end on really good adaptation.”

Read the full story here.