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We Need a Federal Disaster Superfund

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Hurricane Sandy's unprecedented impact on the New York-New Jersey region is still being felt over a month after the storm has passed. The storm resulted in a massive response effort that continues today and has involved every level of government along with an impressive outpouring of private help. It is now clear that it will take a long time to recover from this disaster. Despite the wealth of this region, we will need help from the rest of the nation if we are to fully recover. The nation must develop a more routine and adequate method of funding response to disasters. We need a federal Disaster Superfund.

Unlike the response to Katrina, we have seen an intense and reasonably competent governmental response to this disaster. But the scale of the impact means that people continue to suffer and until life resumes its normal rhythms, people will complain. These complaints need to be heard, and government must continue to mobilize for response.

One of the more imaginative approaches to reconstruction is the Bloomberg administration's Rapid Repair Program. According to New York City's web site:

"NYC Rapid Repairs is a FREE program to help residential property owners affected by Hurricane Sandy make emergency repairs. These emergency repairs will allow residents to stay in their homes so that they can complete more permanent repairs and finishes. Emergency repairs include permanent or temporary restoration of heat, power and hot water, and other limited repairs to protect a home from further significant damage. A homeowner must first register for NYC Rapid Repairs. The City will then schedule an appointment for a qualified NYC Rapid Repairs Team to make certain repairs for all eligible homeowners."

The goal of this program is to make sure that as winter approaches, homes that are damaged but repairable can be safely occupied. This is a critical step in allowing families to resume normal life. This follow-up step by New York City followed storm response preparation and staging by NYC government's first responders, key agencies, and state government agencies such as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the City University of New York. But Sandy demonstrated that some extreme weather events are beyond local and state resources -- even states with the population and wealth to possess impressive response capacities of their own. New York City's rapid repair program is probably cheaper than running shelters all winter, but the funding for this program must come from somewhere.

As we work to transition to a fossil fuel free economy and begin the long process of reversing the causes of climate change, we will need to adapt to the impact of the climate changes already underway. That does not mean that we are going to abandon living near coasts. Hurricanes are not the only type of storms that can cause us harm. Droughts can cause fires and intense rain storms such as those now occurring in Northern California can inundate soil and cause rivers to overflow their banks. Blizzards can also do damage as can many other natural and human actions.

The risk of disaster does not mean we should abandon our communities and head for higher ground. It's not clear that any area is truly out of danger. It means we must develop more resilient homes and infrastructure and a more robust national program of emergency response and insurance. All of this must be paid for and all of us must be ready to pay the cost. Some of this is not new. Those of us near the ocean will see federally guaranteed flood insurance rates rise 25 percent next month as part of legislation enacted last summer. Our buildings and infrastructure must be made more storm resistant. Over the past decade, most of our shore communities have been changing building requirements. For example, new homes in Long Beach, New York must have their living quarters raised off the ground. Many of us will be creating utility rooms for hot water heaters and boilers above the basement. We are all learning painful lessons from this disaster.

A principle that must be accepted is that the national government has a major responsibility to fund communities that have been struck by disaster. The spectacle of mayors and governors going to Congress to beg for money must come to an end. We need an agreed-to program of national disaster relief. It should be funded by a trust fund that all of us contribute to as part of our tax burden. Today New York and New Jersey need money. Tomorrow it may be Florida, California and Arizona. If we all pay into this fund, it will spread the costs of disasters across the whole country and across time. If we make it part of normal government operations and insure our communities through a super-sized trust fund, we can move more quickly from disaster to recovery.

A disaster and resilience trust fund could be built on a reduction in the federal tax deductibility of state and local taxes. According to the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution's Tax Policy Center, these tax expenditures cost over $50 billion dollars a year. A reduction of this deduction to 50 percent could fund a $25 billion dollar a year fund that could be used for strengthening our infrastructure and rebuilding homes and public facilities damaged by storms. There is nothing magic about this funding idea -- others could be proposed -- but the point is that all of us will need to pay. If payment is spread wide enough, all of us will benefit from the presence of insurance against the most unpredictable force we know -- the force of nature. Along with requirements for more extensive insurance coverage, our society could develop a more realistic array of rainy day funds. Access to these funds would be similar to payment of insurance claims and removed from political gamesmanship.

It is not only climate change that is causing increased vulnerability. The world's population continues to grow and America's population continues to grow. That means that storms that might have once bypassed populated areas now strike them. We are also more dependent on electricity than we once were. Many of the technologies central to our lifestyle require power. When the electricity stops, normal daily routines are disrupted. This means that our electric grid needs to be modernized. And we must work to build a more decentralized or distributed system of power generation and storage. Our effort to respond to emergencies and rebuild after them, should assume that America's population will continue to grow and the demand for greater local control over power generation and storage will also increase.

It is quite possible that we may go a few years without a weather disaster like Katrina, Irene or Sandy. If that is the case, let's not develop amnesia and forget that these events took place. Let's use that time as a gift to develop the technology and the institutional and funding capacities needed to build a nation more capable of surviving storms and better able to rebuild after them. Let's start by developing a federal disaster Superfund -- while we still have the time to do it.

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