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Congress takes look at catastrophe mitigation

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Backers of a more effective federal catastrophe mitigation policy hope Congress is finally ready to move on the issue.

They have reason for some optimism.

At least half a dozen measures dealing with mitigation issues have been introduced in the current Congress, ranging from building codes to establishing an interagency council to recommend the best means to plan and prepare for extreme weather.

Some proposals enjoy the support of broad coalitions of unlikely allies. Insurer, free-market, professional, community and environmental organizations, for example, have joined to push for building code reform. Examples of catastrophe mitigation efforts that extend beyond the insurance industry include resilience-promoting organizations the SmarterSafer Coalition and Build Strong America, both based in Washington.

And Congress may be listening, supporters say.

“Property loss mitigation, fortunately, has become a more prominent and bipartisan issue on Capitol Hill,” said Julie Rochman, president of the Tampa, Florida-based Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, which belongs to SmarterSafer and Build Strong America.

“I think everybody is tired of seeing communities devastated, in some cases repeatedly, by Mother Nature in ways that we know are going to keep happening,” Ms. Rochman said. “The types of events we see are predictable and known, and they're not going to stop. So whether you come at these issues from a climate change perspective or from a fiscal control perspective, the answer is the same — preparation and prevention.”

“I think the fact that you're seeing more of these bills is that Congress is recognizing the need for resiliency,” said Josh Saks, legislative director at the nonprofit National Wildlife Federation in Washington, which also belongs to SmarterSafer.

“They are recognizing the need because the need is increasing: There are more disasters,” Mr. Saks said. “Congressmen are dealing with losses in their districts more regularly. While these are great steps, what the country really needs is a comprehensive approach to disaster policy.”

“We've been trying to press forward the notion that the way the country handles disaster spending policy is deeply broken,” said Phil Anderson, executive director of Build Strong America. “The country does not do enough before the storm to mitigate the cost.”

Both Build Strong and Insurance Institute support the Safe Building Code Incentive Act of 2015 — H.R. 1748, which was introduced in the House of Representatives in April. The measure would amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to enhance existing mitigation programs by encouraging states to voluntarily adopt and enforce nationally recognized model building codes for residential and commercial structures to qualify for 4% more funding of post-disaster grants.

“I think the main benefit of the Safe Building Code act is awareness of the lack of statewide building codes in this country,” Ms. Rochman said. “People are always surprised to find out that there are actually states in the United States of America in the 21st century that do not have a minimum construction code and/or don't enforce one. That's just pitiful.”

Supporters of legislation that promotes resilience freely admit that the current Capitol Hill atmosphere isn't conducive to swift movement, but do say Congress could be more receptive than the recent past.

“The outlook is certainly improving, because more members of Congress are now aware of exactly how backward our current disaster aid planning is, and they're aware that we need a national mitigation investment strategy,” said Jimi Grande, a senior vice president in the Washington office of the National Association of Mutual Insurance Cos., a member of SmarterSafer and Build Strong America.

“But, of course, Congress being aware of a problem and being able to solve it are two very different things,” he said.

“If you look overall at the prospect of any legislation moving in this Congress, you can't count on too much,” said Steve Ellis, Washington-based vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which also belongs to SmarterSafer. “But I think things like this that reflect common sense and have bipartisan support should be the most likely to move. All of these are well-intentioned pieces of legislation trying to help individuals and communities become more resilient in the face of disaster.”