Our Editorial: Pay for storm relief with budget shifts
Over the course of a couple weeks, America has been hit by two of the most powerful hurricanes in history, leaving Houston, much of Florida and U.S. Caribbean territories in shambles. The country has not ever dealt with such widespread destruction caused by natural disaster.
The cost of putting back together the ravaged regions will be massive. The price tag to taxpayers for repairing New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was $110 billion. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott estimates the damages from Hurricane Harvey will range up to $180 billion.
Expect a similar number for the areas devastated by Hurricane Irma.
So far, Congress has allocated $15.25 billion to get relief efforts started. Where will the rest of the money come from to meet a bill that easily could top $300 billion?
From future generations, if past practice holds. Congress will put the relief effort on the national credit card, as it did with Katrina. New Orleans was basically handed a blank check, as then President George W. Bush sought to atone for his initial bumbling response.
This time, President Donald Trump and Congress should commit to getting a significant portion of the money from spending reforms.
It’s a perfect opportunity to set priorities, weighing the myriad federal programs that currently consume budget dollars against the urgent need to restore Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
It may be wishful thinking to expect lawmakers to find all of the money in the existing budget. But at least a portion of the rebuilding dollars should be found there as a good faith nod to fiscal responsibility.
And the money should come with stipulations that the affected communities not be rebuilt in the same manner to simply wait for the next hurricane to arrive.
Rebuilding with federal dollars should be restricted within zones prone to flooding and most susceptible to wind damage. Too much construction has been permitted in areas vulnerable to hurricanes, and the fault lies partly with Congress.
As the USA Today editorial board noted last week, the National Flood Insurance Program, enacted in 1968 in the aftermath of Hurricane Betsy, enables homeowners to build in flood zones by heavily subsidizing their insurance premiums.
If premiums were more closely reflective of risk, there would be fewer homes built in those areas.
Natural disasters are inevitable. This is as good a time as any to establish responsible practices for covering their costs, and for mitigating them.