The number of deadly natural disasters afflicting the U.S. is rising, and so is the economic cost of each event. As state and federal emergency response agencies change their recovery funding roles, Hoosiers will have to bear more of a financial burden after each disaster.
Historically, when natural disasters have occurred, Americans have been able to depend on state and federal agencies to aid in recovery efforts and subsidize some of the cost of the natural disaster.
But federal agencies are spending less on recovering from the last disaster and more on getting ready for the next one, leaving individuals to pay for more recovery costs on their own dime.
Authorities say the new strategy makes economic sense, but it’s likely to hit Hoosiers hard, especially those with low incomes.
DISASTER DECLARATION PROCESS
The state of Indiana’s disaster declaration process requires that several steps be taken during and after a natural disaster in order for assistance to eventually make its way to Hoosiers.
Emergency personnel from local governments must first respond to a natural disaster. When they determine that they need more resources than they have to respond to the event, they can ask the state for help. The governor can then declare a state of emergency, activating the state’s emergency plan and resources to deal with the disaster. If the state is overwhelmed, the governor can ask the president to declare a major disaster or emergency declaration.
The federal declaration allows the federal government to disburse federal funds to individuals, families and communities with the official disaster area. Since 2008, Indiana has received 9 federal disaster declarations.
The most recent declaration happened last May, after deadly flooding in northern and southern Indiana between February and March 2018.
Many counties saw the worst flooding in decades that was attributed to several deaths. In the southern part of the state, the Ohio River reached its highest crest in 21 years, inundating hundreds of homes in Indiana and Kentucky.
Northern counties also faced record flooding. The St. Joseph river crest reached record levels in Niles, South Bend, Goshen and other cities. Flooding washed away cars and closed many roads.
According to the government’s own information, the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved 1,164 individual assistance applications from people in 22 counties. Nearly $4 million was approved for individual and household assistance, and more than $11.6 million was given to communities as public assistance grants.
But even that amount is much less than Hoosiers had been receiving from the federal government in past years.
“From about 1990 through about 2004, FEMA was funding those disasters,” said Erin Rowe, director of emergency response and recovery for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. “As we get to about 2005 and through 2018, you start looking, and it’s been more of the Small Business Administration and more of us having to use the state’s disaster relief fund.”
Rowe made her remarks at the Indiana University McKinney School of Law Environmental, Energy, & Natural Resources Law Symposium in Indianapolis this spring
IDHS statistics show that since about 2005, federal financial disaster relief assistance has declined overall. The state of Indiana has largely had to finance its own disaster recovery, although the state is able to recoup part of the relief expense from the federal government after a federal disaster declaration.
INDIANA DISASTER RELIEF FUND
Indiana is one of only a few states that has its own disaster relief fund to provide financial assistance to help individuals pay for the cost of repairing, replacing or restoring property damaged by a disaster if they’re not eligible for a federal grant or loan.
Unfortunately for Hoosiers, the state disaster relief fund coffers are not as large as FEMA’s.
The fund is supported by fireworks sales, and the amount of money generated varies every year. The state of Indiana assesses a public safety fee of up to 5 cents on fireworks transactions. The first $2 million is deposited in a regional public safety training fund. Any money left over goes to the relief fund.
“So, it is not a consistent amount of money,” Rowe said. “So, if there’s a drought, guess what?”
The fund spent $458,997 in the 2016-2017 fiscal year and $132,312 in the 2017-2018 fiscal year. Expenditures for the current fiscal year ending June 30 are estimated to reach $128,211.
The expenditure amounts include money spent on individual and community grants. The size of the grants is dependent on how much money is in the fund.
In 2015, the state issued about $307,000 in payments to 118 Hoosiers after severe weather struck and damaged homes in eastern and central Indiana. The applicants were issued checks for about $2,500 each. That amount was determined due to the amount available in the state disaster fund.
The federal disaster declaration during the 2017-2018 fiscal year helped the state avoid paying affected Hoosiers out of the state fund. Despite deadly historic flooding, the state only had to disburse $27,996 in state disaster relief fund grants to eight Hoosiers who were not eligible for federal aid. Those residents received about $3,500 each due to available funds.
Between 2007 and 2017, the state had to tap into its disaster relief fund for 12 weather events. The state awarded 490 grants totaling $2,176,574.43.
Federal aid has served as a safety net for the state during its most difficult moments, but that soon may change.
FEMA’S NEW ROLE
FEMA officials say the agency will not be there to bail out local and state governments after every emergency.
“FEMA is not a first responder,” said FEMA acting deputy administrator Daniel Kaniewski in a 2018 speech on the agency’s future role. “And some of this blunt talk that maybe you haven’t heard from FEMA — expect it. In case you haven’t figured that out by now and what I’ve said today, we are going to be very blunt with the American public about what FEMA can and can’t do-what the federal government can and can’t do.”
Instead of focusing on recovery, FEMA is attempting to shift its focus to funding resilience, or being prepared for natural disasters before they happen in order to reduce the costs of a natural disaster. In order to increase the amount of money available for future natural disasters, less money will be doled out to individuals for recovery.
“FEMA supports the state. We provide, bureaucratically, what the statute says,” said Kaniewski, who is also FEMA’s deputy director for resilience. “We provide supplemental assistance to the governors during a disaster. It does not say we are going to be there for every citizen.”
The shift in strategy will be painful for individual states as more of their budgets will have to be allocated toward mitigation and disaster recovery efforts.
IDHS officials say spending on preparedness makes financial sense.
“Research has shown that taxpayers save an average of $6 for every dollar spent on mitigation, and that’s an amazing return on an investment,” Rowe said. “Because if we can mitigate it on the front end, it lessens the amount of response and response cost, as well as the time for recovery.”
Due to FEMA’s retreat and the varying amount of aid available in the state disaster relief fund, individual Hoosiers will have to ensure they protect themselves should a natural disaster happen.
According to the state’s Multi-hazard Mitigation Plan, one of the biggest threats Hoosiers will face will be increased precipitation resulting in heavy flooding.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s spring outlook forecasts an increased chance of flooding for more than two-thirds of the U.S. Almost the entire state of Indiana has a higher than 50% chance of seeing at least minor flooding. Areas surrounding the Ohio River have a more than 50% chance of seeing moderate flooding.
All of the severe weather events that have resulted in enough damage to necessitate dipping into the state disaster relief fund in the last 10 years are storm-related. The storms either led to tornadoes or major flooding.
“We’ve seen a recent uptick in catastrophic disasters, including flooding recently,” Kaniewski said in April. “As a result, we have to change the way we think about them. Everybody in a community is responsible for being prepared for disasters. Insured survivors will be able to recover more quickly and more fully from a flood or other catastrophic event than their uninsured neighbors. FEMA assistance to uninsured disaster survivors is a fraction of the assistance provided who have flood insurance.”
Homeowner’s insurance and renter’s insurance will help pay for damages caused by some disasters, but to protect against flooding, homeowners must have specific flood insurance.
Flood insurance rates vary depending on where ones lives in relation to a body of water or a known flood zone.
Paying for financial protection will be an added burden for many Hoosiers, but it may soon be the only way to ensure recovery after a disaster.
The IDHS has a website to help Hoosiers get prepared to deal with the questions that come up before, during or after a natural disaster strikes. You can find the info at getprepared.in.gov.