Opinion Editorial by Gary Williams, Executive Director of the Florida Rural Water Association

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

For decades, the American approach to disaster recovery has been simple — spend now, talk about innovating later, rinse, and repeat.

Since 2000, flood-related disasters have cost taxpayers more than $845 billion with much of this spending on projects to maintain the status quo instead of building better and stronger for tomorrow.

This broken cycle of misguided, disconnected emergency spending is unsustainable in even the best times. Now, as our state and nation come together and find ways to recover from the public health and economic toll taken by COVID-19, and prepare for the June 1 hurricane season, we simply cannot afford to continue down this path.

Congressional leaders must act now and take a smarter approach so future natural disasters and flood events do not further cripple the financial health of our local, state, and federal government.

The economic toll that the novel coronavirus has taken on budgets in city halls, statehouses, and the federal government over the last three months cannot be overstated. Federal spending on the COVID-19 response has already topped $6 trillion and is continuing to grow.

The response to COVID-19 has caused surpluses to turn to deficits, debts to soar, and critical revenue sources, like local sales tax collections, to freefall. All of this as we head into what is often the most expensive time of the year for governments — hurricane season.

In Florida, we know all too well the destruction brought forth by hurricanes, and that flooding causes the most devastating and lasting damage. Flooding is the costliest and most common natural disaster in the U.S. and Florida is especially vulnerable to its impacts.

According to the Florida Division of Emergency Management, more than 1.34 million Floridians live in flood-risk areas; more than 2,500 critical facilities are at risk from flooding; and, more than 14,000 properties have seen repetitive losses.

The situation our state finds itself in is alarming. Looking forward, the question we must ask ourselves is not whether communities in Florida will flood, but whether we are properly prepared for when the flooding occurs. Of course, in too many communities across the Sunshine State, the answer to this important question is no – and the coronavirus has only made this problem more severe.

Thankfully, there is a smarter approach to solving this issue. A federal bill (H.R. 1610) by Florida’s own Congressman Charlie Crist (D-FL-13) and Texas Congressman Roger Williams (R-TX-25) to establish a State Flood Mitigation Revolving Fund (SFMRF) is currently before Congress.

Establishing a flood mitigation revolving fund would provide access to critical capital for states to provide funding assistance to help homeowners, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and communities reduce flood risk and decrease the loss of life and property, the cost of flood insurance, and future federal disaster payments.

This fund would bring together local, state, and federal partners to create solutions tailored to the needs of individual communities, helping to ensure that dollars invested in flood mitigation are maximized to keep families safe.

We need to look no further than our own backyard to see the success of investing in mitigation. Pre-disaster mitigation projects completed at a cost of $19 million prior to Hurricane Matthew resulted in avoided losses of more than $81 million — a 422 percent return on investment. Additionally, the National Institute of Building Sciences recently completed a study which concluded that for every $1 spent on hazard mitigation, $6 is saved in future disaster costs.

The State Flood Mitigation Revolving Fund is a commonsense approach to address the critical and deadly force threating communities in every state across America. Simply put — investments in mitigation today save lives and money tomorrow.

With the COVID-19 response already straining government finances, we can’t keep waiting to make the smart choice. Congress must take up this good bill and place the safety of families and the wellbeing of communities across our state and nation first. The time to act is now.

Gary Williams is the executive director of the Florida Rural Water Association (FRWA).