While executive orders provide some immediate policy responses, they tend to focus more on the short term. State legislatures typically produce longer-term and more comprehensive solutions to the lasting challenges of a natural disaster. The role of the state legislator in disaster recovery ranges from legislative reform and supplemental appropriations to continued district-level constituent casework and outreach.
Legislative solutions can fall into three broad areas—education, funding and reform.
As state legislatures consider a range of disaster recovery policies and appropriations, legislators who represent disaster-affected districts or sit on related committees of jurisdiction could benefit from prioritizing their own familiarity with the right contacts and the key issues. Specifically, state legislators could:
- Engage the right people. Legislators can engage state officials and other experts by inviting them to testify before their committee, conducting regular update calls during certain times of the year, and scheduling site visits to highly damaged areas or to view available resources. These individuals can include:
- State officials. Emergency management director, public safety commissioner, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) state disaster recovery coordinator, the governor’s homeland security advisor, public health director, the state chief information officer, state hazard mitigation officer, building and fire officials, and other key executive branch personnel.
- These players vary from state to state so it may take some outreach to understand this picture. For example, in Texas, the Division of Emergency Management oversees the use of most FEMA grants while the General Land Office oversees the use of Community Development Block Grants – Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) and certain subsets of FEMA funding.
- Local officials. City and county emergency management directors; local 911 center directors; local leaders of first responder entities, such as fire chief, police chief and sheriff; building code officials; and other key local government personnel.
- Community aid organizations. These will also vary widely between legislative districts but might include local nonprofits such as the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity or Goodwill; faith-based organizations; private-sector entities pursuing innovative emergency management solutions; or community hubs, such as schools and churches, that might operate as emergency operations centers.
- Critical infrastructure personnel. This can include utility executives who can speak to each utility’s disaster recovery procedures as well as personnel for both distribution, transmission and generation operations.
- Issue area experts. There are myriad research organizations, national associations, universities and others producing game-changing research and resources every day that are central to identifying data-driven solutions in the disaster space. Some examples include:
- The National Institute of Building Sciences’ recent reports detailing return on investment for mitigation measures.
- The Pew Charitable Trust’s 2018 report that tracks state disaster spending, and its 2020 report and policymaker fact sheet on how states can pay for natural disasters.
- National consensus-based codes and standards from recognized organizations like the American Society of Civil Engineers and the International Code Council.
All legislatures are members of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) and have access to issue-area experts, nationwide state emergency management legislation, and representation in Congress and the administration.
- Consult constituents. Legislators can learn first-hand from their constituents the true extent of a storm’s impact. This perspective is central to developing effective state policy that benefits their particular district.
- Know the key issues.
- It can be helpful to have a base understanding of emergency management 101, the different stages of a disaster, the Incident Command System (ICS) used by emergency management professionals during a disaster, the National Response Framework and Emergency Support Functions, Community Lifelines, and the Stafford Act. It may also be beneficial to understand the specific catastrophic events repeatedly affecting their state or district, how state systems interplay with local and federal levels, their state’s Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan (CEMP), and the latest research or successful state examples of effective disaster policy.
- Consider after-action reports. State and local offices that were centrally involved in the recovery effort can issue an after-action report following major disasters. They assess the effectiveness of the response and recovery effort and often include specific policy recommendations that span issues of public safety, emergency management, appropriations, economic development, infrastructure, health, education and many others. Consider similar reports as well—like that of the North Carolina General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division that detailed lessons learned from Hurricane Matthew and informed a new bill in 2019 from the North Carolina congressional delegation.
The cost of disasters at all stages is shared to varying degrees by federal, state, private and nonprofit sectors alike. There are many sources of federal funding available for communities impacted by a disaster. Key examples for states include Public Assistance grants from FEMA and CDBG-DR grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. However, states frequently also find it necessary to pass their own comprehensive economic recovery packages, especially when a presidential disaster declaration is not granted. Disaster funding mechanisms vary state to state but post-disaster appropriations bills often:
- Allow the use and disbursement of existing money from rainy day funds or disaster accounts.
- Grant a state agency or office the authority to transfer existing funds as needed.
- Deliver new funding via supplemental appropriations. This might include large sums to refill disaster accounts or targeted funds for certain populations, sectors or purposes such as:
- To repair infrastructure for roads, bridges, water systems, levees, dams, etc.
- To provide housing assistance, such as temporary housing for displaced populations or grant programs for housing repair costs.
- To mitigate the effects of public safety power shutdowns.
- To support building departments in damage assessments, permitting, and plan review and inspections to support recovery.
- To provide matching funds for federal grants. For example, FEMA Public Assistance grants generally require a 25% state match while Emergency Management Performance Grants require 50%.
Beyond appropriating recovery funds, some states may consider more comprehensive reforms to their approach to disaster preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery. These reforms can be broad, structural changes or targeted improvements. Some examples include:
- Preparedness planning
- Require comprehensive preparedness planning between key stakeholders at multiple levels of government as well as the private sector. For example, the Electric Subsector Coordinating Council outlines how the public and private sector can coordinate to improve electric grid preparedness.
- Structural reorganization
- Create public offices that facilitate disaster response and recovery, and community resiliency, such as through the creation of “one-stop centers” that enable disaster victims to more efficiently seek information or obtain assistance. Legislators could also establish a state chief resilience officer or an interagency working group.
- Create new or repurpose existing staff positions that enable expertise, professionalism and institutional knowledge.
- For example, after Hurricane Matthew, North Carolina passed legislation creating the North Carolina Office of Response and Recovery (NCORR) in 2019 that operates under the emergency management director and is the designated grantee of CDBG-DR funds.
- Mitigation measures
- Revise/increase building codes and standards for floodplain development, wildland-urban-interface, earthquake and wind resistance measures, etc. These might feature resiliency best practices for homeowners and critical infrastructure.
- Implement programs and create financial incentives for acquisitions of properties from flood-prone areas, restoration or creation of nature-based solutions or green infrastructure, home retrofits or insurance plans.
- Establish state revolving loan programs to provide a self-replenishing source of funding for a range of risk-reduction projects. The state revolving loan fund program run by the Indiana Finance Authority can serve as an example.
The scenarios above are intended to be examples only, not recommendations. NCSL’s Public-Private Partnership on Disaster Mitigation and Recovery expects to release a comprehensive report on policy best practices and recommendations in fall 2020.
Constituent Casework and Outreach
State and federal assistance programs can be incredibly complicated and legislators should be prepared to be a constituent’s first call. Through constituent outreach efforts—such as campaigning, answering calls and emails, town hall meetings and other gatherings— state legislators are in a great position to know how their particular district’s constituents are weathering the disaster.
During the recovery phase, constituents may seek assistance:
- Understanding what resources or programs may help them with temporary housing, personal finance, resources for displaced students, food and nutrition needs, health services, etc.
- Navigating federal grants. FEMA’s Individual Assistance grants are a key example, but assistance is available across many federal agencies for a range of populations. Procedures for federal grant application, disbursement, use and related reporting are complicated and change periodically. It will be helpful to know the right contacts at FEMA and the FEMA regional office serving your state.
- Navigating state assistance, whether existing or newly created post-disaster programs.
- Identifying private or nonprofit sources of assistance.
- Regarding consumer protection in rebuilding.