A few weekends ago, I found myself watching an interview on the Weather Channel that hit home: A major flooding event in rural Arkansas made it nearly impossible for first responders to do their job and aid citizens in need. That same situation could occur anywhere — even in our region. The time is now to develop commonsense local, state, and federal flood policies to make our communities more resilient in the face of flooding.
Last fall, our country saw one of the most costly hurricane seasons on record – with more than $120 billion in taxpayer funds dedicated to recovery efforts. Businesses, homes, and communities were destroyed and now face the daunting task of rebuilding. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives voted to modernize the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which has been set to expire multiple times over the past six months and provides flood insurance to millions of Americans while giving guidance on how communities can develop in the least flood-prone areas.
The proposal included several sensible reforms – including addressing some of the riskiest properties that flood repeatedly, mandating the disclosure of flood risk and history when properties are sold, and limiting new development in the areas most prone to flooding. The proposal could, however, have taken a more proactive approach to mitigating the next floods.
As director of the Chester County Department of Emergency Services, I know that Chester County is not immune to repeat flooding, and whenever our neighbors in Berks and Montgomery Counties experience a flood, we're usually next in line. After a flood disaster, emergency management organizations are tasked with finding and deploying resources focused on recovery and rebuilding. Our focus is, and should be, on these immediate recovery efforts and not future risks, which makes it difficult to implement plans to reduce damage from future disasters.
By investing in mitigation before it rains, not just post-disaster, our communities will be safer, more prepared, and our emergency responders won't be unnecessarily put in harm's way. As a bonus, recent studies show that, for every $1 we spend in pre-disaster mitigation, we save $6 in post-disaster recovery. Saving lives and saving money – this is a no-brainer.
Our representatives in Congress should seize this opportunity to encourage innovative mitigation techniques. They exist. One proposal capitalizes on the benefits and suggests a new federal-state partnership to create a revolving loan fund that allows states to provide low-interest loans to communities and organizations to fund flood mitigation projects like flood proofing, buyouts, and storm water system upgrades.
As the Senate considers NFIP authorization, key reforms passed by the House to help reduce our nation's flood risk, coupled with increases to mitigation, will better prepare communities and individuals for when the water rises. Pennsylvania Sens. Pat Toomey and Bob Casey should support measures to reauthorize the NFIP and reprioritize our nation's preparation and response to flooding. Congress has the ability to get this right at a time when we cannot afford to delay these decisions any longer, and I hope that the Senate, and our senators, will reform the NFIP and protect Pennsylvanians, their property, and our emergency responders from future disasters.
Robert J. Kagel is director of the Chester County Department of Emergency Services.