When a snowstorm closed airports across the northeast last week, two congressmen stranded in Texas devised a creative travel scheme, opting for a cross-country road trip to D.C. instead of waiting for airports to reopen. While their adventure received significant attention, the subject of natural disasters was also receiving attention in several congressional hearings. In the House and Senate, hearings focused specifically on flood insurance, and members of the Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management Subcommittee of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing to discuss the future of the National Preparedness System (NPS).
The NPS, which is operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), outlines processes for identifying and assessing hazards and plans for building the capability to deal with those hazards. Chairman Lou Barletta (PA-11) opened the committee’s first hearing this Congress by stating that public buildings reform and disaster legislation are his two top priorities and expressed hope that legislation would be ready for the full committee to consider in the first half of the year. He highlighted the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 and the Port Security Grant Program as important examples of grant funds made by FEMA and stressed that going forward the committee should make sure NPS programs are “wise investments” that get “the biggest bang for its buck.” Ranking Member Hank Johnson (GA-4) reiterated that point, adding that studies show “investing in pre-disaster mitigation to save lives, minimize damage, and speed up recovery” reduces overall costs.
Like many congressional hearings this week, discussion turned to the president’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget, which proposes to reduce federal and state funding of FEMA grants by $667 million. Ms. Catherine Pugh (Mayor; Baltimore, MD) highlighted the positive impact of FEMA grants in cities and raised concern over potential budget changes, pointing to recent cuts that have already stressed disaster preparedness programs in her city. Representative Bill Shuster (PA-9) argued the need to “cut the fat” but not “cut the muscle” because the important role of FEMA in national preparedness “cannot be understated.” While the two congressmen drove up to the Capitol building just in time for their votes, the rest of the country will have to wait until September to see what happens with federal agency funding this year, now that the process has been started by the president’s budget request.