Eliminate Billion-Dollar Disasters: Equitable Science-Based Disaster Policy for a Resilient Future

Authors: Allison Reilly, A.R. Siders, and Deb Niemeier


Every year, Americans lose billions of dollars to natural hazards. Hurricanes, wildfires, floods, heat waves, and droughts affect millions of Americans and are particularly devastating for low-income communities and communities of color. The number of ‘billion-dollar disasters’—those that cause over a billion dollars in damage—is rising as a result of climate change, urbanization, high risk developments, communities in vulnerable areas, aging infrastructure, and federal policy that rewards risk-prone behavior rather than incentivizing risk reduction. An overhaul of U.S. federal disaster policy will reverse the trend and eliminate billion-dollar disasters. This goal requires action at all levels of government, coordination across agencies, and leadership from the highest levels.

The next administration should implement a multi-phase plan beginning with an executive order instructing federal agencies to define federal roles in disaster response, coordinate agency efforts, and integrate social justice and climate change into decision-making. Agency-level mandates will develop and implement best practices, incentivize state and local measures, and create an evidentiary basis for funding allocations. Finally, legislative reform of disaster laws will enable flexible responses to the continuing effects of climate change. A coordinated overhaul of federal laws and policies will inspire change at state and local levels, leading to a U.S. disaster policy that is climate-ready, addresses social inequities, reduces taxpayer liability and disaster damage, and saves lives.

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About the Author

Allison Reilly is an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, College Park in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Her research focuses on identifying governance systems that enable resilient infrastructure and strong communities. Prior to her appointment at the University of Maryland, Dr. Reilly was a research fellow at the University of Michigan and a postdoctoral researcher at Johns Hopkins University. In addition, Dr. Reilly was a research analyst for a federally-funded research and development center in support of the Department of Homeland Security. Dr. Reilly holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from Cornell University and a B.S. in Civil Engineering from Johns Hopkins University.

A.R. Siders is an assistant professor at the University of Delaware in the Disaster Research Center, Biden School of Public Policy and Administration, and department of Geography and Spatial Sciences in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment. She holds a JD and a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. Siders previously served as an environmental fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment, a legal fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, and a Presidential Management Fellow with the U.S. Navy. Her current projects focus on adaptive capacity, managed retreat, and adaptation equity. She believes adaptation is opportunity and that we should be ambitious, if not audacious, in dreaming of and planning for a better future. Originally from Duluth, MN, she misses the cold.

Deb Niemeier is the Clark Distinguished Chair and Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Maryland. She partners with sociologists, planners, geographers, veterinary medicine and education faculty to study such topics as formal and informal governance processes in urban landscapes and how to characterize risk associated with outcomes in the intersection of finance, housing and infrastructure and environmental hazards. She was named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for “distinguished contributions to energy and environmental science study and policy development.” She is a Guggenheim Fellow for foundational work on pro bono service in engineering and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.