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Proponents of enhanced federal support of disaster mitigation hope the memory of previous catastrophes will spur action on a quartet of bills during the waning days of the current Congress.
Hurricane Arthur was a “wake-up call for a lot of folks on Capitol Hill and across the country that hurricane season is already underway,” Jimi Grande, Washington-based senior vice president of the National Association of Mutual Insurance Cos. and chairman of the Build Strong America Coalition, which promotes more effective building codes, said in an e-mail.
“It certainly got the conversation about hurricane preparedness started earlier than usual in the season, especially since it made landfall during the week of the Fourth of July,” he said.
Each bill, some introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, addresses a different aspect of disaster mitigation. They are:
• The Safe Building Code Incentive Act of 2013, H.R. 1878 and S. 924, would provide additional federal assistance to states that adopt and enforce building codes as specified in the legislation. Qualifying code, would be “consistent with the most recent version of a nationally recognized building code” and use that code as a minimum standard. Under legislation that has bipartisan support, states that enact such strong building codes would qualify for another 4% in federal hazard mitigation grant funding.
• The Disaster Savings Account Act, H.R. 3989 and S. 1991, calls for a $5,000 tax deduction for homeowners who deposit money into a newly created form of savings account to offset disaster mitigation costs.
• The Disaster Savings and Resilient Construction Act of 2013, H.R. 2241, would provide tax credits of varying amounts to businesses and homeowners meeting “resilient construction requirements” as defined in the bill when building or renovating commercial and residential structures.
• The National Windstorm Impact Reduction Act Reauthorization of 2013, H.R. 1786, passed by the House last week, would establish the National Institute of Standards and Technology to plan and coordinate the national windstorm impact reduction program and enhance the scope and depth of data collected on windstorm damage and mitigation techniques. Congress' emphasis on controlling costs could aid the effort to enact the bills.
Looking at the debt, the deficit and where disasters are going in terms of cost, “we have no choice but to look at mitigation,” said Bill Webb, executive director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute, a Washington-based nonpartisan policy group and a member of BuildStrong.
“We've not faced any public opposition to these bills and, in fact, most members are receptive to and supportive of a comprehensive disaster mitigation policy,” Mr. Grande said. “Members of Congress are sick and tired of passing emergency appropriations bills after a disaster occurs and would love to begin addressing our deficits sooner rather than later. Simply put, there are no sound arguments for opposing the call for safer homes and businesses. Everybody agrees that we should have some basic minimum life standards in place.”
“We look for opportunities to support legislation that will strengthen building codes and incentives for mitigation,” said Chris Hackett, Chicago-based director of personal lines policy at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, another BuildStrong member. “We typically support tax incentives to encourage mitigation. We hope these bills gain traction this session.”
Proponents of the legislation say the barriers to passage involve procedure rather than disagreement with the substance of the bills.
“The challenge with any piece of legislation is the process — scoring the bill, the calendar. There are externalities that are wholly unrelated to the substance of the bill that could tie it up,” said Julie Rochman, president of the Tampa, Florida-based Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, another BuildStrong member.
“All of these pieces of legislation are worth serious consideration,” she said. “They take a variety of approaches that are nonpartisan. They're straight-ahead efforts at incentivizing individuals, builders and states to do the right thing — that is, to make buildings stronger and safer.”
Agreeing with Mr. Grande, Ms. Rochman said Congress often responds after a catastrophe strikes.
“Unfortunately, disasters tend to focus the legislative mind, so if we have a serious landfalling hurricane, members will be looking for something to do, and we hope they will reach for these proposals,” she said.
“Unfortunately, it takes events such as Arthur to get their attention,” Mr. Webb said. “Given that we're in the political season right now, the pressure is on to get the appropriations bill. It's a daunting task to get any kind of legislation passed. You can't sit back and expect things to happen. You have to get out there and push, push, push.”
A new research paper from Zurich Insurance Group Ltd. and several collaborators is calling for greater emphasis on building flood resilience around the world rather than emergency recovery and provides a framework for mitigating risks before floods occur.