September 19, 2023

Ranking Members Larsen, Titus Statements from Hearing on the State of FEMA Disaster Readiness, Response and Recovery

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Ranking Member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Rick Larsen (D-WA) and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management Dina Titus (D-NV) during today’s hearing titled, “FEMA: The Current State of Disaster Readiness, Response, and Recovery.”

More information on the hearing can be found here.

Ranking Member Larsen:
Thank you, Subcommittee Chairman Perry and Subcommittee Ranking Member Titus, for calling today’s hearing on “The Current State of Disaster Readiness, Response and Recovery.”

Today, will be an opportunity to discuss the many challenges FEMA is facing due to a busy disaster season and strategies for overcoming these challenges.

Climate change is making disasters more frequent, intense and costly.

NOAA announced a troubling new record this month—in 2023, the U.S. has experienced a record number of disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion in the 23 separate events. Disaster season is far from over, so this figure is bound to grow.

The intensity of this year’s disaster season is rapidly depleting the Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund. I am very concerned about the lack of funding available to fight these disasters.

In the wake of the Maui wildfires and in anticipation of Hurricane Idalia, you announced the implementation of Immediate Needs Funding last month to save what little money FEMA has left.

I understand that FEMA is only obligating funds for direct aid to disaster survivors and actions that immediately save life and property.

The result is that all other recovery projects such as rebuilding vital roads, bridges and schools have been put on hold indefinitely. A total of 1,610 recovery and mitigation projects have been put on hold—impacting nearly every state and every community in our country.

I want to emphasize that the current state of the Disaster Relief Fund is not FEMA’s fault. It is Congress’ responsibility to provide enough funding in annual appropriations.

It is imperative that Congress work together in a bipartisan manner to replenish the Disaster Relief Fund as soon as possible, so you can continue to fulfill FEMA’s mission of helping people before, during and after disasters.

However, addressing the record number of billion-dollar disasters requires more than just adding more money to the Disaster Relief Fund.

FEMA needs to adapt and implement a strategy of readiness for an evolving world so it can provide an adequate response each time a disaster is declared.

Deputy Administrator Hooks briefed us this Spring on current efforts outlined in FEMA’s strategic plan to address that.

I appreciate the time Regional Administrator Nunn and his team took to run a disaster response tabletop exercise with my staff in Washington. The exercise was very informative and facilitated several important connections. In fact, it’s something I would encourage other members to do with FEMA in their regions with their region directors to better understand Congress’ role in responding to disasters.

But there is always more work to be done. With a more than 50% increase in storms and disasters in the last 10 years FEMA must use science to incorporate climate change projections into all its programs. So, communities like Maui are prepared for unprecedented disasters before they happen.

In order to address modern natural disasters, we also need to expand mitigation and increase resilience.

Overwhelming evidence has proven that mitigation is a commonsense, cost-effective way to save lives and property.

That is why I support expanding funding and access for mitigation and resilience projects.

We need to leverage all the resilience funding provided by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

This landmark legislation included a $7 billion investment for pre-disaster mitigation programs, which made it possible for FEMA to support the largest Notice of Funding Opportunity in the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program’s history last Congress and funded the new Storm Revolving Loan Fund program.

I also hope new authorities provided by legislation such as Representative Davids Community Disaster Resilience Zones Act will help the Agency target funding to communities with the greatest need and highest risk of natural disasters.

You must ensure that all communities have equal opportunity to access these vital funds. This can be achieved by providing additional technical assistance to underserved applicants and simplifying the benefit cost analysis requirement.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law made great progress in making our nation more resilient by providing nearly $7 billion to help communities proactively prepare for disasters.

More needs to be done to ensure our nation’s readiness by incorporating climate change projections into all of FEMA’s programs and making access to pre-disaster mitigation grants equitable.

Administrator, you have a difficult job. I want to thank you for all the work that you do and your team does and that they have done under your leadership. Your dedication and service to communities throughout the country is well known and we need to do our job to support FEMA’s efforts to ensure  more equitable outcomes and building a more resilient nation.

I look forward to discussing how we can work together to drive needed reforms and help FEMA achieve its goals.

Thank you for being here, I look forward to hearing your testimony today.

Ranking Member Titus:
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I want to thank Administrator Criswell for joining us today as we discuss FEMA’s readiness to lead disaster response and recovery. 

Since your testimony to this Subcommittee last year, climate change and the related severe weather events have continued to generate dire circumstances for FEMA. The Disaster Relief Fund, which serves as the backbone for FEMA’s response and recovery programs, is nearing depletion. It is of the utmost importance that Congress fulfill President Biden’s supplemental funding request, free of any poison pills, so FEMA can continue providing the necessary resources for ongoing recovery efforts, including those in Maui and Florida, and needs that will emerge in the near future. I greatly appreciate your steadfast leadership and the dedication of FEMA’s staff during this challenging time.

My home state of Nevada has experienced terrifying impacts in the wake of the new climate reality, and I want to take the time to acknowledge all of the emergency managers across the state and in my district who have been working diligently to prepare for and respond to extreme weather threatening our communities. This summer we all held our breaths as a hurricane threatened to cross the desert. Meanwhile, Las Vegas has experienced unrelenting extreme heat and repeated flash floods. What’s more, is that a record drought in the West indicates these disasters will only grow worse in the coming years and we must work together to ensure Nevadan communities are ready to handle their consequences.

Solutions must guarantee that all disaster survivors and communities are treated fairly by FEMA’s programs. Natural disasters amplify existing disparities in our society and it should go without saying that the government must address the needs of every American equally in disaster recovery. Some of our most vulnerable populations, however, have been neglected or overlooked. The subcommittee has received testimony from underserved communities over time regarding frustration with FEMA’s attention to their needs in times of recovery.

Administrator, I know you recognize these long-standing disparities and are working with us to change them. We appreciate your work to implement new laws and policies that will have long-term benefits, improve the well-being of victims following disasters, and enhance the resilience of our public infrastructure and homes.

I especially value your public support for reforms in a bill introduced by myself, Congressman Garret Graves, Congressman Troy Carter, and Congresswoman Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon—the Disaster Survivor Fairness Act, which passed out of the full committee unanimously earlier this year. This legislation is designed to make federal disaster aid more easily accessible to survivors, and it is my hope this bill can contribute to FEMA adapting to the current disaster climate. It removes barriers to aid by creating a universal application for federal disaster assistance and empowers the agency to assess home damage more fairly and accurately post-disaster. This should ease the burden on families applying for disaster assistance after what might have been the worst days of their lives.

Administrator, I thank you and your colleagues for the work you have done to shepherd FEMA in a positive direction by acknowledging and addressing the impacts of climate change, prioritizing equity, and investing in mitigation and resilience. We recognize the challenges you face, and we want to do everything in our power to help you succeed.

Thank you.