U.S. needs national disaster fund
OCTOBER surprise, which has become a part of the American political lexicon, refers to astonishing news that changes the electoral landscape.
Hawaii had its own October surprise, but it wasn't the political landscape that shifted -- it was an earthquake that shook the earth below the islanders' feet.
The earthquake that measured 6.7 on the Richter scale and rocked the Big Island at 7 a.m. Oct. 15 was a wake-up call to the residents of the Aloha State; hopefully, it will be a wake-up call to policy-makers from Honolulu to Washington, D.C., as well.
Catastrophes often trigger swift, genuine and well-intentioned reactions from government. Sometimes these reactions are carefully crafted; other times, they are immediate solutions to pressing needs that don't get to the core problem or issue.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency's experience in responding to natural disasters and catastrophes -- including earthquakes, floods, fires and hurricanes -- has taught us that while immediate responses must address the human needs for protecting health and safety, long-term recovery needs to address fundamental issues like preparation, mitigation and the ability for victims to repair and rebuild in the aftermath of catastrophe.
Traffic makes its way along one lane of Kahala Mountain Road near Waimea on the Big Island after the Oct. 15 earthquake damaged the road.
Directing immediate response efforts to a catastrophe is a logistical challenge like no other. Even in the best of conditions, the unexpected always happens; buildings collapse, roads get washed away, communications systems fail. It is a credit to the tenacity, creativity and determination of first responders, like those in Hawaii, that lives are saved and losses are minimized.
The days following the onslaught of catastrophe are filled with comments that universally begin with the words "Thank goodness." "Thank goodness the rescue team got to us." "Thank goodness the evacuation routes worked so well." "Thank goodness we still have one another."
The weeks that follow often are filled with comments that begin with "If only." "If only we had planned better." "If only the emergency responders had better communications." "If only we had invested in better mitigation."
The victims of Hawaii's earthquake are indeed thankful that no lives were lost. Some are wondering if damages could have been lessened if only a comprehensive and integrated program of public education, enhanced mitigation, better funding for first responders and a better plan financial plan to assist victims was in place before the earthquake struck.
Those are thanks well-placed and those issues are well-raised.
Catastrophe-prone states need an integrated and comprehensive catastrophe preparedness program. The need has never been more apparent.
A comprehensive program would include the establishment of a privately funded state catastrophe fund that would annually set aside premium income from insurance companies into a fund that would serve as a backstop to the private market. The fund would operate much like a private IRA -- its deposits would be exempt from taxation as would the fund's investment earnings. Deposits in the fund could be used only to pay claims in the event of a true catastrophe. Investment earnings would be used to pay claims and to improve consumer education, enhance building codes and enforcement and to provide a stable source of funding for first responder programs.
Increased first responder funding could be used to address issues in Hawaii like the absence of an emergency broadcast system, or to identify critical structural improvement to essential buildings or to improve coordination between emergency responder teams.
A second component of the program would be the establishment of a similar catastrophe fund at the national level that also would be privately funded and would serve as a backstop for state funds in the event of a mega-catastrophe. Only qualified state funds, ones that require a portion of investment income to be used for emergency preparedness and mitigation programs, could buy coverage from the national fund.
Hawaii's Legislature already has held initial discussions on the establishment of a comprehensive program of better preparedness and protection from the ravages of natural catastrophes. Those discussions should begin again so action can be taken when the new Legislature meets.
The U.S. House of Representatives held two hearings this past summer that discussed the creation of a privately funded national program, as well. The national component of an integrated catastrophe response and recovery program should be a top priority for the next Congress.
The national warnings have been sent. From Hurricane Katrina to the Hawaii earthquake, our leaders have been put on notice. It is imperative that they heed those warnings. The safety of our families and the security of our homes depend on it.
Robert W. Porter is executive director of ProtectingAmerica.org
, an organization of first responders, businesses, government officials and insurers who are working for better ways to prepare and protect Americans from natural catastrophes.