As remnants of Hurricane Harvey move northeastward, the U.S. Gulf Coast continues to be drenched.
Harvey, which made landfall last Friday night as a Category 4 storm, is the strongest hurricane to hit the U.S. in over a decade, with winds exceeding 130 mph in some areas.
But beyond the extreme winds and storm surge, Harvey has crippled southeast Texas with widespread flooding. The storm stalled just south of Houston and is only now moving toward the northeast. Parts of Houston were hit with more than 40 inches of rain.
As Harvey moves into Louisiana, more people will be displaced and will need rescuing. If you are in areas adjacent to those hardest hit, you may be in a unique position to help by providing shelter, offering your boat, or volunteering to help those who have fled from the storm.
Americans across the country can help by giving donations to trusted organizations such as the Houston and Corpus Christi food banks, the Salvation Army, local churches, and others. You can donate blood to the American Red Cross and check with other organizations for specific goods they might be seeking.
Once the flooding recedes, the cleanup and rebuilding will begin.
Current damage estimates are wide ranging, but it appears that losses of $40 to $50 billion are likely. To put this in context, Hurricane Katrina cost over $100 billion while Sandy cost around $70 billion.
Some of these costs will be covered by private insurers, individuals, and businesses, but a great deal will come from the government. Unfortunately, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s two main programs, the Disaster Relief Fund and the National Flood Insurance Program, are not on sound footings.
The Flood Insurance Program is $25 billion in debt. Whenever a disaster strikes, it sinks deeper in debt as artificially low premiums cannot cover the payouts.
The Disaster Relief Fund is consistently depleted every year as it usually responds to over 100 smaller disasters each year, meaning it is unable to put aside money to prepare for these catastrophic storms.
As of July 31, FEMA only had about $3.8 billion for the rest of the fiscal year.
With the end of the fiscal year approaching, Congress will soon have a debate over how the government will cover its commitments. Disasters of this magnitude are clear cases in which the federal government needs to be able to help, and we all want to help suffering Americans.
But we also want to be fiscally responsible. In the past, these “must-pass” emergency spending bills have turned into more pork or future infrastructure spending than actual funding for the Disaster Relief Fund. This should not happen again.
Moving forward, Congress should also fundamentally reform FEMA so that the National Flood Insurance Program and the Disaster Relief Fund are put on a sustainable footing to be more prepared for catastrophic disasters.
This means returning more responsibility for smaller disasters to states by creating a higher threshold for which disasters qualify for federal disaster relief funds. This will allow FEMA to build a larger disaster relief reserve and lessen the need for supplemental spending bills.
In the meantime, keep those impacted by Harvey in your thoughts and prayers, and do what you can to help those impacted by the storm.