Hurricane Ian is one of the most devastating disasters in Florida’s history—a state with a long history of tragedy. For those millions affected by disasters across America every year it is an increasingly common story.
For now, the focus after Ian is on the grim minute-by-minute estimations. At least 140 people are dead and damage costs will reach $75 billion (or more). But, the consequences will last much longer than this initial tally, it will shape the future of Florida. All this while Puerto Rico still has thousands of customers without power weeks since Hurricane Fiona made landfall. In the next decade we will see the long-term impact of flooding on infrastructure, the ever-present toxic spills present in storm surge events, the health impacts of storms, including PTSD, and major impacts on wildlife, on tourism, on fragile local economies, and the list goes on.
The nation we have built is more vulnerable than ever to disaster, but does it have to be this way?
In July the U.S. House, with 217 Democrats and one Republican in favor, passed H.R. 5118, the Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act. A key provision of the bill, initially proposed by Reps. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and John Garamendi (D-Calif.), and Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), provides for the creation of a new federal agency tasked with applying the science of disaster to the saving of lives and livelihoods: the National Disaster Safety Board (NDSB). Like the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the NDSB would objectively investigate and consolidate data identifying the actual causes of a given disaster and provide policy recommendations to prevent it from happening again.
In the Senate a similar bill was introduced last year by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) to create the NDSB. Let Hurricane Ian be the evidence: Senators need to vote on it, and pass it, today. It is a matter of basic fairness and disaster justice.
In the U.S. we have a tendency to rush to post-disaster reconstruction before asking the hard question: what should we learn here? When a disaster happens, there are several potential sources of inquiry: emergency management and other government agencies conduct “After Action Reports” that offer narrow findings; journalists investigate various issues that arose during the response, but these stories rarely lead to substantive policy changes; academic disaster researchers fill journals and the pages of thousands of books, but these findings have perpetually failed to reach policy makers. Finally, major disasters usually receive at least temporary attention from various congressional oversight committees, especially when recovery resources are slow to make their way to a given community. In sum, these efforts reflect the analytical skill the nation can muster for disaster reduction, but disorganization and the lack of an authoritative investigative body prevents real policy change.
The Department of Transportation relies on the NTSB for bipartisan, professional investigations of transportation accidents, and has since its inception in 1974 offered at least 15,250 safety recommendations to over 2,450 recipients. Had the National Disaster Safety Board been established simultaneously during the establishment of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 1979, policymakers, practitioners, regulatory agencies, private and non-profit entities, local-tribal-state and federal jurisdictions would have benefitted from factual disaster reduction advice for decades. This absence is felt in every disaster we face today—so obvious when the same mistakes play out year after year.
Take housing for example, land use patterns are always changing, but floodplain maps and regulations are slow to reflect the realities of risk. With Hurricane Ian, some homeowners in Florida will have taken out policies underwritten by the National Flood Insurance Program. But many others, well over 50 percent by some estimates, do not have flood insurance. For some, this extra insurance is unaffordable. For others, they may have been unaware of their risk because flood insurance was not required. Some survivors will find ways to cope through savings, loans, and nonprofit aid, but some will lose their homes. Renters historically fare even worse. Consider the impact of Hurricane Harvey (2017) on the Houston region—from 2017 to 2018. The homeless population of Houston jumped 15 percent, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. And patterns of structural racism always reappear—communities of color receive federal relief funds last and in lesser amounts. African Americans received on average less recovery funding than did their white neighbors post-Harvey. None of these disaster impacts are mysterious, but they have never been integrated into sensible, life-saving policies by experts like those who will staff a National Disaster Safety Board.
The proposed NDSB, as part of an overall emergency management reform effort in America, offers the chance to leverage decades worth of data, human capital, and technology to inform its investigative work. In a time when our national risk is increasing due to decades of bad development decisions, centuries of discriminatory policy, and climate change the need to transform how we address disaster is more urgent than ever.
A National Disaster Safety Board is long overdue, and not for lack of demand, urgency and direction. Some have been arguing in favor of an NDSB-type organization since 2017.
We cannot ignore the sustained assault on and increase of a disaster underclass in the U.S. and the world over. To do so is a moral failure and a thorough embrace of a more dangerous future.
Scott Gabriel Knowles is a professor in the Graduate School of Science and Technology Policy at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. Samantha Montano Samantha Montano is an assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy. Njoki Mwarumba is assistant professor of Emergency Management and Disaster Preparedness at the University of Nebraska Omaha. They are the founders of Disaster Researchers for Justice .
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