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By David E. Hubler
Contributor, EDM Digest
The start of the 2019 hurricane season is only four weeks away. So now is the time to prepare for our fair share of Atlantic and Gulf Coast storms, which seem to grow in number and devastation each year.
The acting head of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), Pete Gaynor, is urging Americans to assume more responsibility for protecting themselves.
In a recent interview with Bloomberg News, Gaynor said most people see a natural disaster on TV and don’t believe it can happen to them. “They say, ’I’m not going to make the time or investment to protect my property. It’s too expensive.’” As a result, he added, “We haven’t solved the problem in a significant way.”
2018 Natural Disasters in US Cost over $91 Billion
According to a report from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and reported on CNBC, damages from natural disasters in 2018 cost the nation $91 billion, the fourth highest total since NOAA began tracking the data in 1980.
NOAA blamed the economic losses on 14 different natural disasters. Eighty percent of that total, $73 billion, was attributed to just three events: Hurricane Michael in Florida, Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas and the major wildfires that wreaked havoc in the Western states.
In addition, Puerto Rico still hasn’t fully recovered from Hurricane Maria in 2017, the deadliest storm in modern U.S. history.
FEMA Has Implemented Changes, Especially to Hard-to-Reach Areas Prone to Disasters
According to Gaynor, FEMA is “a much more ready agency” because of changes it has made to better handle the increasingly severe storms. Those changes include keeping more emergency supplies in disaster-prone places like Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Alaska, which can be harder to reach during a natural disaster.
Congress has also given the agency the ability to spend more money preparing communities for disasters, which is cheaper than rebuilding afterward, Gaynor said. FEMA has an annual budget of more than $17 billion.
FEMA is now a battle-hardened agency, based on the two most recent disaster years, Gaynor said. But he also warned that FEMA is “just a bridge to safe, secure and sanitary. We cannot be everything to everyone. This is a partnership.”
Gaynor urged state and local officials to do more, starting with imposing tougher building codes. “I know that’s hard to do,” he acknowledged, “when your family’s owned property for 50 years, to insist on some modification to that property because it costs money. But it’s in everybody’s best interests. The cost of disasters is not lessening.”
FEMA’s Changes in Leadership
FEMA’s previous administrator, Brock Long, resigned in February, after what The New York Times called “two turbulent years” in which FEMA handled more than 220 declared disasters.
Long “earned plaudits for FEMA’s response to Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas and Louisiana in 2017,” The Times said. But that same year, “he came under withering criticism for FEMA’s handling of relief efforts after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico later that year.”
Soon after Long’s resignation, President Trump nominated Jeff Byard, another top FEMA official, to become the new administrator. However, Byard has not yet been confirmed by the Senate.