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National disaster preparation and response plan gets bipartisan traction

Posted On: Feb. 15, 2015 12:00 AM CST

Finally there has been the start of serious bipartisan discussion in Washington of a comprehensive national approach to preparing for and responding to natural disasters.

The property/casualty insurance industry has long stressed that disaster mitigation is central to any successful catastrophe policy.

During a recent hearing by the House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Managements, subcommittee Chairman Lou Barletta, R-Pa., called for a national debate on a policy to better deal with disasters.

Within days, President Barack Obama issued an executive order setting a new flood risk reduction standard for federally funded projects.

Superstorm Sandy “has brought more states into the discussion,” said Tom Glassic, vice president in the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America's Washington office. “The fact that the White House and a leading Republican are talking about the same space shows there's interest on both sides of the aisle.”

Frank Nutter, president of the Washington-based Reinsurance Association of America, said getting disaster policy to become a Washington priority has long been a challenge.

But with the Republican subcommittee chair's call during a late January hearing and the Democratic president's stance, “it does feel as though perhaps there is some bipartisan interest in doing more to promote resilience and preparedness of communities in advance rather than disaster assistance after major events,” Mr. Nutter said.

“I'm pleased that they're all coming together,” said R. David Paulison, a former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a senior adviser to the Washington-based BuildStrong coalition, which promotes enhanced building codes.

Mr. Paulison, also a senior partner at Washington-based consulting firm Global Emergency Solutions L.L.C., who appeared on behalf of the coalition before Rep. Barletta's panel, said he thought it was coincidence that Rep. Barletta's and President Obama's actions “happened to be back to back.”

“We are spending a lot of money on disasters, and nobody really knows how much we're really spending” on post-disaster relief involving numerous federal agencies, he said.

“We know what to do, we know how to do it, but it just hasn't been done,” said Mr. Paulison, who said BuildStrong backs setting up a blue-ribbon panel to examine the issue. “We see the same damage over and over and over. It's got to stop somewhere.”

PCI will host the National Flood Conference, which brings together stakeholders and partners in the National Flood Insurance Program, in May in Washington.

“We would like to see strong state building codes, and even consideration in the flood program of state building code requirements,” said Don Griffin, a vice president in PCI's Chicago headquarters. “The code business is not just related to fire safety and wind — flood ought to be part of that, too.”

Ray Lehmann, a senior fellow at the Washington-based R Street Institute, a free market-oriented public policy group, said “we're hopeful” that the private and public sector actions will lead to movement on comprehensive disaster policy.

The institute also is a member of SmarterSafer.org, a coalition of environmental, insurer, free market and other groups that support mitigation efforts and oppose government subsidies of construction in environmentally sensitive and unsafe areas.

Mr. Lehmann said that the executive order has drawn resistance from some Republican senators. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., for example, questioned the executive order's legality.

“We don't believe there is anything remarkable in the executive order, but it's something that could be contentious,” he said.

“I think this conversation is happening, and I think it's a good one to have,” said Tom Santos, a vice president at the Washington-based American Insurance Association. “It needs to happen” if the nation is to better prepare for disasters due to floods and high winds, Mr. Santos said. Record snowfall in parts of the nation this year also is focusing people's attention on the issue, he said.

BuildStrong Executive Director Phil Anderson said the group is encouraged that Rep. Barletta's panel is taking on the issue.

“Only by studying and evaluating where the federal taxpayers' dollars are being wasted currently can you come up with at least a fraction of that money to be put on budget to fund these critical prevention measures, like the Safe Building Code Incentive Act,” Mr. Anderson said in reference to a bill introduced in the last Congress to provide financial incentives for states that enforce effective building codes.