March 18, 2021

Chairs DeFazio, Titus Statements from Hearing on Federal Investments in Resilience and Disaster Mitigation Programs

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Chair of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management Dina Titus (D-NV) during today’s hearing titled, “Building Smarter: The Benefits of Investing in Resilience and Mitigation.” Videos of opening statements from Chairs DeFazio and Titus are here and here. More information on the hearing can be found here.

Chair DeFazio:

Thank you Chair Titus, and thank you to our witnesses for being with us today. The issues we’ll be discussing have proven results as driving factors in reducing risk and future costs to the federal taxpayer for disaster relief.

As Chair Titus noted in her opening remarks, the return on investment is quite measurable and significant. And, this oversized return on investment reminds me of the work done by the people at FEMA: whether they are administering disaster relief and assistance, funding mitigation projects, or undertaking efforts to bolster national resilience one individual or community at a time, they play an outsized role and punch well above their weight.

Representing a district recently impacted by catastrophic wildfires, I’ve seen FEMA work with partners at the state and local level, as well as with disaster survivors who have lost everything—it’s worth taking a moment to recognize FEMA’s seemingly tireless workforce.

In the last year alone, FEMA has been tapped to respond to the pandemic with a record-setting number of concurrent Stafford Act declarations; responded to above-average tornado, flood, hurricane, and wildfire seasons while operating under unprecedented COVID protocols; pushed tens of billions of dollars of assistance to state, tribal, territorial, and local partners in disaster relief and unemployment assistance; and now it is concurrently leading the effort to vaccinate the nation and squelch the pandemic while also assisting its sister federal agencies to provide more humane conditions for migrants seeking refuge in the U.S. 

For all the work FEMA employees have done and will continue to do to help us recover from disasters—thank you.

Smart investments of Federal dollars in projects focused on mitigating risk and bolstering resilience is just basic good government, and will lessen the impacts of future disasters. When we help mitigate risk using the programs and efforts of FEMA, we make homes and the built environment of our communities more insurable—shifting the burden from the Stafford Act as being the de facto insurer of last resort for so much of the nation.

We know these programs are oversubscribed—just look at the volume of interest in the BRIC program for this cycle. It’s imperative that BRIC is fully capitalized so it can fund an even greater number of projects in the out years.

Last October, I was proud to lead a bipartisan letter with Ranking Member Graves, Chair Titus, and then Ranking Member Katko to FEMA Administrator Gaynor and O.M.B. Director Vought urging them to set aside the full $3.7 billion calculation for BRIC from the COVID declarations granted pursuant to the Stafford Act. Instead, the previous administration only set aside $500 million. This administration can correct for that mistake, but not at the expense of ongoing vaccination efforts.

In the DRRA, we successfully included the establishment of post-disaster HMGP funding for FEMA’s Fire Management Assistance Grants, so that states that experienced wildfires of a magnitude warranting federal help could also benefit from post-disaster mitigation assistance. Additionally, we expanded eligible activities under the HMGP program to be inclusive of additional hazards, such as earthquake early warning technology.

Given the experiences of communities in Oregon, California, and other states running into roadblocks using the HMGP funding for certain activities in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), it appears that additional activities must be taken into consideration to ensure that the Hazard Mitigation Assistance programs address all hazards equitably.

For example, an entire community may not be able to be relocated out of the WUI, so it may be cost beneficial to underground utilities to prevent future disasters from taking them down, or it may make sense to rebuild a fire station in a lower-risk area of the WUI than to simply not build one back at all.

And, I don’t believe that all of this investment must be borne directly by the Federal government. Going back to the 113th Congress, I have joined with Representatives Reed, Pascrell and Diaz Balart to introduce the Disaster Savings and Resilient Construction Act, which is about to be re-introduced.

It would provide tax incentives to encourage individuals and companies to gird their homes and businesses from natural hazards and known risks, lessening costs of insurance claims and future disaster relief. I plan on working with our colleagues on the Ways and Means Committee and urge them to advance the measure this congress.

Nearly three years ago, a Republican-controlled Congress and President Trump agreed that the resilience of Department of Defense (DOD) facilities was worthy of establishing a resilience standard across the department. The FY19 John McCain Defense Authorization Act explicitly requires that DOD facilities constructed in a special flood hazard area must be built at a minimum of two feet above the base flood elevation. If the facility is deemed to be critical infrastructure—such as a power plant, hospital, school, or fire or police station—the minimum requirement is three feet above base flood elevation.

If it’s good enough for the billions of dollars we invest in the DOD, then why not for other federally-funded infrastructure?

During our February markup, my friend from Louisiana, Representative Graves, offered an amendment to set aside $500 million of the $50 billion dollars we provided for FEMA disaster relief to be used to establish a national flood standard, and I’m open to working with him in pursuing one. Our colleagues—Mr. Price of North Carolina and Mr. Zeldin of New York—have recently introduced legislation with a similar goal, which has been referred to the Committee.

We have our work cut out for us. The T&I Committee has always taken on challenging tasks and tried to find a bipartisan path forward. I’d expect the same here. We’d all like to see our communities stronger and safer—more resilient from known risks.

The crush of applicants for BRIC is proof that there’s no lack of shovel-ready projects that can get underway, put engineers and trades to work, and lessen the impacts of future disasters.

I look forward to working with Chair Titus’ as we move forward, and in finding areas of agreement with our colleagues across the aisle. Thank you.

Chair Titus:

Good afternoon, and thank you to our witnesses.

This is the Subcommittee’s first hearing of the 117th Congress, but before we get started I just want to take a moment to recognize Mr. Daniel Webster of Florida, the new Ranking Member of the Subcommittee.

Our Subcommittee has the distinction of being the most productive of any under Transportation & Infrastructure and I look forward to working together to keep that record going as we advance policies and programs that safeguard the lives and livelihoods of the communities we represent.

Today’s hearing is titled, “Building Smarter: The Benefits of Investing in Resilience and Mitigation” —two intertwined topics that have enjoyed bipartisan attention and cooperation.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is perhaps responsible for the most significant amount of dedicated funding for pre- and post-disaster mitigation, and leads the whole of the federal government’s strategy to build a more resilient nation.

Ranking Member Webster is no stranger to these issues. As he noted to me, he previously worked in the Florida Legislature to enact the state’s updated building codes in 1996 following the devastating impacts of Hurricane Andrew.

Those updated building codes are one example of a cost-effective mitigation strategy. And they have led to more resilient communities all across Florida.

In insurance and emergency management circles, Florida’s 2004 hurricane season is infamous for the four storms – Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne – that crisscrossed the state during a six-week span, leaving virtually no square inch of the state untouched.

In the wake of those storms, the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety conducted a study of residential construction, comparing homes built before and after the 1996 adoption of the bolstered codes to examine the impacts on insurance claims.

The IBHS study found that homes constructed after the new codes saw 60 percent fewer claims, and those claims were 42 percent less costly than the homes constructed before the strengthened codes.

That’s just one example, but we know that when homes, businesses, and other infrastructure are built stronger from the get-go, or are built back stronger following disaster, they’re less likely to be seriously damaged during future events.

That ability to bounce back faster is a measure of their resilience.

Unfortunately, as more American communities grapple with ever increasingly severe natural hazards, we don’t have to look hard to find examples of communities that we all represent that have been knocked down by recent disasters.

Last month Texas electric utilities suffered a multi-day catastrophic failure resulting from an unusual deep freeze.

Something similar happened in 2011 and also in 1989, and one of the recommendations of the multiple after action reviews in 2011 was for generating companies to invest in insulation for equipment and heaters or other technologies that are commonly employed by their counterparts in areas more prone to cold weather.

While the power generators are typically investor-owned utilities and ineligible for mitigation assistance from FEMA, their failure to invest in this type of mitigation led Governor Abbott to request a major disaster declaration for all 254 Texas counties to provide relief to the four and a half million households that lost power and to the public buildings and other infrastructure damaged by the deep freeze.

In a briefing for Members of Congress and their staffs last month, the state’s emergency manager, Chief Nim Kidd, estimated that the resulting damages experienced by public buildings, private businesses, and residences from last month’s rolling blackouts from days-long power outages would likely result in the need for more federal disaster assistance than was allocated to respond and recover from 2018’s Hurricane Harvey, the state’s costliest natural disaster to that point. And it was reported on Tuesday that at least 57 Texans lost their lives as a result of the severe winter weather – from hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning, medical equipment failure, falls, and car crashes.

We haven’t even touched upon the ever-increasing threat of wildfires across the West, or the expansive risk to low-lying communities from rising tides or storm surges.

The majority of the assistance FEMA provides in response to Presidential disaster declaration funds the repair or replacement of infrastructure. In addition to this Public Assistance funding, the Stafford Act provides for 15 percent of eligible disaster costs to be sent to disaster-impacted states to be used in post-disaster mitigation projects – this is referred to as the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP).

These projects have provided a significant return on investment to the taxpayer: depending on the type of project, the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) has demonstrated between $4 and $11 in reduced disaster recovery costs resulting from federally-funded mitigation projects – ranging from the adoption of stronger building codes to physical infrastructure projects.

In 2018, following significant analysis and work by this Subcommittee, Congress amended the Stafford Act with the passage of the Disaster Recovery Reform Act. For the first time, taking the lessons learned from the successful post-disaster mitigation program, we decided that FEMA should similarly fund a Pre-disaster Mitigation (PDM) program.

This program existed prior to the reform bill, but was inconsistently funded by our colleagues on the Appropriations Committee. This program would differ from the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program in that it would be nationally competitive, with a goal of making investments in mitigation and resilience before disaster could strike.

For a state like Nevada, which rarely receives Hazard Mitigation assistance due to more than 84% of the state being federal lands and our few and far between Presidential disaster declarations, the new Pre-Disaster Mitigation program could be a game changer for communities I represent in Clark County, where an investment in a transformative mitigation project has the potential to benefit a significant number of people and businesses.

FEMA is calling the new Pre-Disaster Mitigation program “BRIC”, for Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities.

It’s too soon to tell how effective BRIC is, but the first application cycle closed at end of January for a pot of $500 million dollars. FEMA received nearly a thousand applications for projects totaling more than $3.6 billion dollars.

The demand clearly exists across the nation for this kind of smart investment.

FEMA funding — as well as smaller pots of federal funding for mitigation and resilience-focused projects — reduce future exposure to the federal government on the disaster relief side of the ledger.

We’ll examine what works and what’s flawed in FEMA’s approach to mitigation and resilience, and how the Agency can further empower states, tribes, territories, and localities to better leverage the various types of available assistance to protect their communities.

I look forward to all of our witnesses’ and Members’ perspectives, and working with Ranking Member Webster and our colleagues to advance future legislative efforts out of this subcommittee to provide FEMA the resources and tools needed to help make American communities more resilient to predictable hazards.

Before I recognize Ranking Member Webster for his opening remarks, I ask unanimous consent to insert two items for the record.

First, a statement from the BuildStrong Coalition, which has been such a leader on these issues. And I believe a few of our witnesses today are also proud members of BuildStrong.

Additionally, the Committee has received a letter from the SmarterSafer Coalition outlining its priorities in this space, as well.

Without objection, so ordered.