Resilient Communities: A New Disaster Preparedness Approach

Pete Buttigieg
Sep 17, 2019 · 15 min read

In my eight years as mayor of South Bend, we’ve experienced a 500-year flood and a 1,000-year flood. They happened within 18 months of each other.¹ Floods like this should occur once in a lifetime, but with climate change what was once rare has become routine. These disasters upend lives. I remember standing with a mother of four on the porch of her flooded house, the night before the first day of school, trying to figure out what to do because the flood made their house unlivable.

We can’t stop all natural disasters from striking, but we can control how we prepare for and recover from them.

As a mayor, I’ve seen the frustration that sets in for local communities when federal disaster response falls short, or takes too long, or is delivered in a confusing fashion that leaves local authorities, nonprofits, and state officials scrambling to cover for gaps and delays.

But I’ve also seen the federal government at its best. After our major floods, South Bend worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to improve preparedness by upgrading technology for flood detection in the city, allowing our community to anticipate problems and view floodway mapping in real time. These are the productive partnerships we need much more of.

Climate change has only exacerbated the need to improve our disaster preparedness. The science is clear: catastrophic weather events are increasing in frequency, intensity, and impact.² In the last three years, the U.S. has experienced a historic number of billion-dollar disasters, costing us an average of $150 billion per year.³ In 2017, there was unprecedented demand for federal disaster assistance following three of the five costliest hurricanes on record.⁴ In 2018, Hurricanes Florence and Michael battered the Southeast, while the California Camp Fire was the deadliest in the state’s history.⁵

The effects of these disasters disproportionately threaten people with low incomes, often in Black and Latinx communities, who are also often less able to recover after disasters.⁶ Aid to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria was delayed and insufficient.⁷ Of the 1.1 million people who applied to FEMA for individual aid, FEMA denied nearly one-third.⁸ After Hurricane Michael, sustained power outages and infrastructure damage put diabetics and dialysis patients especially at risk.⁹ Children are particularly vulnerable to mental health problems after a disaster;¹⁰ I have met young people and families from Puerto Rico still coping with the trauma of disaster in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which studies suggest will impact an entire generation.¹¹

Washington can’t solve this problem alone. The federal government offers a patchwork of grants to help cities and counties prepare for natural disasters and rebuild. But this funding mostly comes only after a disaster strikes, and it can be complicated and confusing to access. Even when sufficient funding is available for a particular disaster, it may take years to reach those in need.¹² It’s been two years since Hurricane Harvey devastated Southeast Texas and communities like Aransas County are only just now receiving promised federal dollars.¹³

We need to do something different, and we need to do it now, which is why I’m proud to be the first 2020 presidential candidate to propose a new approach to disaster preparedness. Building on my climate plan — Mobilizing America: Rising to the Climate Challenge — we will:

(1) Improve coordination between and among communities and federal agencies to help people in need.

(2) Create a culture of resilience, by fortifying our infrastructure right now and encouraging smart adaptations that will save money and lives when catastrophe strikes.

(3) Improve immediate disaster relief for after a disaster hits.

Improve Coordination to Help People in Need

When disaster strikes, there’s no time to wade through unnecessary paperwork. We need immediate relief.

People at their most vulnerable time should not have to navigate a bureaucratic maze in order to get a roof over their heads. But too often, coordination is siloed, preventing seamless response and recovery. Agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) often don’t share enough data to enable communities to effectively plan for or recover from disasters — in some cases, preventing assistance from reaching those most in need.¹⁴

We need to figure out how to bring aid to people, not make people figure out how to access the aid they need. We must make it easy for people to get help and allow agencies, state and local government officials, and volunteer organizations to quickly and effectively coordinate a wide range of resources and programs. After Hurricane Sandy, a Cabinet-level task force was created to facilitate cooperation between agencies and state and local governments in the aftermath of that disaster.¹⁵ We need more of this kind of collaboration — on a permanent basis and at a larger scale.

That is why, within my first 100 days in office, I pledge to set up a community-centered Disaster Commission to review and make recommendations to streamline the process for disaster preparedness and recovery. We’ll bring together everyone involved in disaster response and rebuilding — from federal agencies; to state, local, and tribal officials; to volunteer organizations — all overseen by a senior White House official with direct access to the Oval Office. We’ll pay particular attention to island and coastal regions, from Florida to Hawaii to Puerto Rico. And I intend to act quickly, based on the Commission’s recommendations.

The Commission’s mandate will include finding ways to:

  • Streamline applications and data collection. With many different agencies offering disaster survivors different types of support — some as grants, some as loans — it’s no wonder that people get confused and don’t know where to turn for help. I’ll ask the Disaster Commission, with the support of digital experts experienced in disaster relief, to develop a proposal to minimize the need for multiple disaster relief applications, while also respecting the data privacy of survivors. I will also reduce barriers to accessibility by ensuring that these forms are available in multiple languages and in formats that those with impaired sight or with other disabilities can use. In a disaster’s aftermath, the last thing a survivor needs is more paperwork.

Create a Culture of Resilience

We know where these storms will strike. We just need to be ready.

To reduce the impacts of disasters, we need to create a national culture of disaster resilience.¹⁶ We can either wait for the next catastrophe and scramble to repair the damage, or we can take steps right now to proactively prepare. Resilience acknowledges that bad things may happen, but we can ensure we’re able to build back quickly, and thrive, after they do. This requires planning, modernizing our infrastructure, and making smart choices about where we build and how we view risk. It requires all of us to work together. A better system will strengthen not only our communities but our finances — because for every federal dollar we spend on resilience, we can save six dollars in rebuilding costs, and spur economic activity in the process.¹⁷

We will empower communities by:

  • Funding community volunteer programs. The first people to respond to a disaster aren’t necessarily deployed by a government agency. They can be family helping family, friends helping friends, or neighbors helping neighbors. In 2009, a non-profit in New Orleans created a program in partnership with the city to train volunteers to help with evacuations.¹⁸ Hands On Nashville similarly recruits volunteers to assist with weather-related displacement.¹⁹ Massachusetts-based All Hands and Hearts engages volunteers to address disasters’ immediate and long-term impacts.²⁰ These community volunteer programs should be supported with federal dollars, and we will encourage and fund similar programs throughout the country.

We will support private sector partnerships that help communities prepare for the future. While major companies often provide critical services and technologies — such as drones to survey damage and locate survivors — during the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster,²¹ they should also be a part of the preparation. My Administration will explore incentives for private sector companies that partner with state and local governments to help with resilience planning and long-term recovery. The threat of climate change is too big for government to solve alone. Private partnerships are essential to prepare for the worst.

We will harness the power of existing technologies. In many cases, we already have the technology to create more resilient communities — we just need to do a better job at directing resources where they’re needed. For example, innovative organizations are funding solar-plus-storage technology installations on top of critical infrastructure, like fire stations, to keep them operational when the power goes out.²² My Administration’s Disaster Commission will determine how to consolidate various grant programs already in place so that companies and communities can easily access funds to implement these technologies in disaster-prone communities, as well as technologies that mitigate climate change.

We will ensure that all federal investments in infrastructure are climate and disaster resilient and use every executive authority available to take action to reduce emissions and promote resilience in infrastructure. We need to slow climate change and prepare for its effects because resilience requires a holistic, systematic approach to keeping our communities safe and economically strong. This will result in a better return on investment of federal dollars.

We will fund resilience efforts through the innovative investment funds described in my Mobilizing America climate plan:

  • The American Clean Energy Bank will have $250 billion of initial capitalization to provide loans, grants, credit enhancements, and loan guarantees to finance resilient infrastructure projects that create good local jobs. These investments will target places where private capital is reluctant to go, and will fund innovative startup companies, particularly across the middle of the country. As part of my Walker-Lewis Initiative, this Bank will promote funding for members of under-resourced communities to ensure that they have access to clean energy technology and resilient infrastructure. The Bank will have regional hubs, co-located with our Regional Resilience Hubs, which will provide communities with financing and technical assistance and will ensure all projects funded will abide by critical labor and domestic content standards, notably Davis-Bacon and Buy America.

We will establish next-generation Regional Resilience Hubs. In South Bend, a world-leading smart wastewater initiative came from a partnership between the city and the University of Notre Dame. Our Rural America plan will support similar initiatives through Regional Resilience hubs, which will encourage community leaders, the private sector, and academia to develop innovative solutions and provide grants to the most promising ideas. Each Regional Resilience Hub will have a Board of Advisors made up of local elected leaders, community leaders, and other citizens.

We will reform catastrophic weather insurance:

  • We will launch a National Catastrophic Extreme Weather insurance program to balance more catastrophic risk with the private sector, thereby reducing the need for emergency appropriations, increasing the speed at which families and communities receive money to rebuild, and incentivizing communities to invest in resilience. The government will also create an income-dependent exchange for families to purchase government-subsidized catastrophic insurance to ensure everyone can benefit from these programs.

We will support loan programs that incorporate resilience and mitigation. I support recently proposed legislation that would grant states and localities more flexibility to address disaster risks rather than waiting on FEMA.²⁶ My colleagues — mayors across the country — have pushed for this legislation following catastrophic flooding that has devastated their communities.²⁷ I also support legislation to create a revolving fund of low-interest loans for communities to proactively combat flooding risks.²⁸

Improve Immediate Disaster Relief

No American should feel abandoned by their government in the event of disaster.

When the hurricane strikes, the tornado touches down, or the fires blaze, we must be ready to save lives with the best trained people, sufficient resources, and the most advanced technology.

We will defend FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund. The Disaster Relief Fund is based on a calculation of current and future disaster needs. This money should be protected, and not treated as a way to circumvent congressional intent. I will take steps to ensure that the Fund is reserved for the purpose for which it was intended: helping our communities survive the worst.

Every mayor knows the indispensable value of immediate assistance and relief. Which is why, when a disaster does strike, we must get disaster workers to the scene as quickly as possible. FEMA is already understaffed,²⁹ particularly when dealing with multiple disasters at once, and this will only get worse as climate change accelerates. That is why we need to quickly increase the number of FEMA-qualified trained disaster workers, which I propose we do in three ways:

  • Build a government-wide Surge Capacity Force. Following Hurricane Katrina, in 2006, Congress passed a law requiring DHS to create a “Surge Capacity Force” to deploy non-FEMA federal employees to support FEMA’s response to catastrophic incidents. We will permanently expand the Surge Capacity Force to include all federal departments and agencies, so that a government-wide effort can be brought to bear in the aftermath of a catastrophic event.

Upgrade FEMA’s capabilities to connect first responders and rapidly deploy community Wi-Fi hotspots for survivors. Communications networks are often among the first things lost in a disaster, impeding first responders and further disconnecting survivors. For people trying to reach loved ones or helping others, Internet connectivity can be as precious as clean water. Using innovative and rapidly-deployable technologies like satellite Wi-Fi hotspots and mesh networks, we will make sure that FEMA has the tools to help communities regain communications and get back on their feet as quickly as possible. In addition to improving FEMA’s resources, we will coordinate and work with the private sector to supplement government units.

Upgrade 911. Because the first call in a disaster is often to 911, we need to ensure our 911 networks can withstand disaster scenarios. Today’s voice-centric 911 networks can be overwhelmed and disrupted by high call volumes in a disaster, as occurred during Hurricane Katrina.³⁰ That is why experts recommend America upgrade to a Next Generation 911 call (NG911) system and why I have previously announced plans to do so. NG911 will modernize emergency calling by providing a resilient system capable of re-routing calls and receiving text, multimedia, voice, and location data during disasters. I will support 911 authorities in upgrading their networks to NG911, including by funding local training, and will require originating service providers to deliver NG911 calls.

Through the many disasters our nation has faced, we have learned invaluable lessons and tried to update our response to save as many lives as possible. But there is still so much more we must do to improve.

It’s time to shift the focus from placing the burden of compliance on individuals and communities, to making it the government’s job to actually help people in their time of greatest need. Communities know more about their needs than anyone coming in from the outside, so let’s empower them with a bottom-up approach to preparedness and recovery. Together we can save lives and protect our communities from the challenges to come.

  1. Parrott, Jeff, Joe Dits, and Mary Beth Spalding. “A Year after Historic South Bend Area Floods, Damage Remains, Preventive Measures Planned.” South Bend Tribune, February 16, 2019.

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