WASHINGTON — A North Carolina state official urged federal lawmakers Tuesday to take bold measures to improve the federal response to natural disasters.
“We as a nation must redouble our efforts to design a system that helps people evaluate their individual risk and plan accordingly while simultaneously reducing our collective risk,” said Michael Sprayberry, director of North Carolina Emergency Management and North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency.
Sprayberry — past president of the National Emergency Management Association — spoke during a hearing before a U.S. House Transportation & Infrastructure subcommittee.
He joined other witnesses and lawmakers in warning of widespread problems caused by delays and shortfalls in federal emergency funding, shortages of federal emergency response personnel and a “cacophony” of federal agencies managing various fragments of the nation’s emergency response system.
As a result, residents of affected communities often don’t have what they need to respond effectively, Sprayberry said. “Many of them are only holding part-time positions and few have all the necessary resources to respond to major events.”
Rep. David Rouzer, a North Carolina Republican, empathized with Sprayberry. “It seems like every year it’s a new storm,” he said, pointing to the “residual, compounding effect” when disaster funding is delayed, which others at the hearing called “the disaster after the disaster.”
The immediate responsibility for responding to natural disasters falls to states, with the federal government playing a supporting role in response to state requests for aid.
Nevertheless, the federal government — and the Federal Emergency Management Agency in particular — has come under attack in recent years for providing inadequate aid in Puerto Rico, Louisiana and elsewhere.
“These programs can be slow, complicated and, frankly, very frustrating to deal with,” Chris Currie, director of Homeland Security and Justice at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, said during the hearing.
Battered by hurricanes
The issue is of urgent importance in North Carolina, a state known for its hurricanes but that also suffers from tropical storms and other natural disasters.
Just last month, Hurricane Dorian struck North Carolina’s coast, battering it with heavy rain, wind and flooding. The state has also been hit by several other hurricanes in recent years, including Floyd in 1999, Matthew in 2016 and Florence in 2018.
Pressures on FEMA and other federal agencies are intensifying as the prevalence of hurricanes, floods, wildfires and other disasters around the country increases.
“Never before has the federal government had to respond to so many costly disasters at the same time,” said Rep. Dina Titus, a Nevada Democrat who leads the subcommittee. “The federal government’s resources are being stretched thin, and some would say exhausted.”
Jeffrey Byard, FEMA’s associate administrator for response and recovery, dodged questions about specific steps FEMA is taking to plan for more disasters as a result of climate change, an exchange that drew a reprimand from Titus. “I don’t see how you can possibly talk about resilience and mitigation without considering climate change,” she told him.
In North Carolina, Sprayberry said, state officials are “acutely aware” of the need to improve disaster recovery efforts and ensure community support, citing problems with programs that help survivors create recovery plans, access mental health support and find housing after storms hit.
The state still hasn’t received the full amount of grant funding awarded in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, making it harder to support survivors in the state, to train and retain personnel and to coordinate recovery efforts with local groups, he added.
In his written testimony, Sprayberry also chastised FEMA for “arbitrarily” shifting housing responsibilities to states and canceling a program providing for temporary shelter and power. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, meanwhile, came under attack for its “bifurcated” approach to federal recovery efforts, and for long-delayed announcements of disaster recovery grants.
A representative from HUD did not appear at the hearing but the department intends to provide written testimony.
To address these problems, Sprayberry urged the government to build on last year’s Disaster Recovery and Reform Act by creating a “universal application” survivors could use to apply for aid from multiple federal agencies at a time. He also encouraged the Trump administration and Congress to work together to blend projects and prepare for future problems together.