Revamp Disaster Management

As climate change wreaks havoc on our planet, the federal government will need to grapple with perpetually increasing disasters. Here are four ways the Biden administration can better handle future natural catastrophes.

By
Jeff Schlegelmilch
January 20, 2021

President Biden's administration has a long to-do list for its first 100 days. Columbia News asked faculty members from across the University to identify the most pressing issues facing the country and offer possible solutions. 


In the United States, 2020 has had more billion-dollar disasters than any other year in recorded history, even without accounting for the COVID-19 pandemic. This is part of a growing trend of more powerful disasters, such as forest fires or hurricanes, across more susceptible areas. This vulnerability is becoming understood to include a combination of the built environment, governance, and underlying social vulnerability. There is also increasing evidence as to how racial and socioeconomic disparities contribute to disaster vulnerability, and how federal assistance programs actually widen these disparities in the aftermath of a disaster.

Among federal agencies in the United States, disasters are managed by as many as 90 different programs across 20 agencies. These come with distinct triggers for activation, ranging from loss thresholds to presidential declarations. Many programs also require special Congressional appropriations to fund them. However, these programs are an uneven patchwork, leaving significant gaps in some areas, and overlapping responsibilities and authorities in others.

The new administration will need to embark on urgent disaster management reform, with a goal of ultimately simplifying our response in increasingly complex disasters. Here are four ways that the Biden administration can help streamline federal disaster management:

1. Conduct an Immediate Review

The first step is to define the scope of the problem. To this end, the incoming administration should conduct an immediate review of disaster management programs by relevant personnel in the White House’s National Security Staff in coordination with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Health and Human Services, and other relevant agencies to identify sources of redundancy and inertia in existing programs, with recommendations for interim actions to ensure more timely assistance to disaster survivors waiting on benefits and other forms of assistance.

2. Create a Multidisciplinary Commission

The complexity of disasters inherently requires a diversity of perspectives. The process of improvement should be guided by a multidisciplinary commission to develop recommendations for comprehensive disaster management reform. This commission should include state and local officials, emergency managers, representatives from federal agencies, critical infrastructure partners, disaster researchers, and citizens from recently affected communities defined as those under a major disaster declaration (other than COVID-19) in the last three years. This commission should be charged with providing a list of recommendations that include legislative action, executive action, and programmatic changes to consolidate and align disaster management to reverse the trends of growing disaster effects.

3. Establish Metrics for Investments in Readiness

While there have been moves to incentivize preparedness, we don’t really know what that means, nor how much is already being spent by states and communities outside of federal dollars. It is critical to confirm metrics for measuring and reporting non-federal investments in disaster preparedness and mitigation to better inform policies that incentivize investments in resilience. This should include the built environment as well as social investments to better inform our understanding of where these investments are being made, and their consequences.

4. Expand Current Strategies to Simplify Disaster Coordination

One of the three overarching goals in FEMA’s 2018-2022 strategic plan is to “reduce the complexity of FEMA."  This is a laudable and much needed goal, but should also be extended beyond FEMA to the entire federal enterprise with disaster programs and responsibilities. Key indicators of success should be survivor centric, seeking to reduce the number of interfaces needed to get assistance, and decreasing timeframes from the moment of a disaster to when assistance is received.

Comprehensive disaster reform will require executive action as well as legislation and a culture shift in the way we prepare as a nation. The incoming administration will be faced with the urgency of this reality with increasing disasters and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but will also have a unique opportunity to build the foundation for a more resilient future.


Jeff Schlegelmilch: A headshot of a man with short dark hair who is wearing a grey suit, light blue shirt and a red tie. Trees and buildings are in the background.

Jeff Schlegelmilch is the Director for the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. In this role he oversees the operations and strategic planning for the center and projects related to the practice and policy of disaster preparedness. His areas of expertise includes public health preparedness, community resilience and the integration of private and public sector capabilities.