Emergency Preparation is Critical to Natural Disaster Recovery
by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison
As the first wave of wildfires of 2008 ignited across our state last month, many Texans were once again reminded of the frequency with which natural disasters strike our terrain. All over Texas , our citizens have endured floods, droughts, severe storms, and wildfires. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Texan who doesn’t know what a tornado sky looks like. And those living along the Gulf Coast are all too familiar with the destruction that a hurricane can leave in its path. But with each disaster, Texans show true grit and tenacity, and we weather the storm. We always recover.
Although we can’t control the weather and the challenges it brings, we can help prepare communities to make sure they’re ready to respond swiftly and effectively to protect lives and mitigate damage to our homes and our vital interests.
Last year brought heavy rains, which spared us an active wildfire season. But with the heavy precipitation of 2007, the grass has grown back and it has essentially become fuel for future fires. The heavy grass overgrowth, coupled with a drier than normal forecast this winter, has led the Texas Forest Service to project an active and dangerous wildfire season for 2008.
Wind conditions and low humidity have swept fires through areas around Dallas-Fort Worth, the North Texas Panhandle, South Texas, and parts of Central and West Texas , burning over 30 square miles of land since the beginning of the year. One hundred eighty-four counties are currently threatened by extreme fire hazard, and, as of early February, 10 counties have local disaster proclamations in effect. Burn bans have been imposed on 172 counties.
Few can forget the fires that ravaged our state in 2006. Some of the largest wildfires in Texas history caused 12 fatalities, burned 730 homes, destroyed nearly 10,000 head of cattle, scorched over 800,000 acres of land, and resulted in millions of dollars in lost crops. These casualties heavily burdened many families, and Texas ’ agriculture industry was hit hard. Drought and fires caused an estimated $4.1 billion in crop and livestock losses in nearly 200 Texas counties. In the aftermath of the 2006 fires, I worked with my colleagues in Congress to secure funding to offset some of the monetary losses, particularly those incurred by Texas ’ vital agriculture industry. I also worked with the USDA to ease guidelines for ranchers on the grazing and feed shortages that resulted from those fires.
Overcoming the bureaucratic hurdles to support our farmers proved challenging and led me to support a provision in the 2007 Farm Bill that established a $5.1 billion emergency fund to assist our farms and ranchers in the wake of major disasters. Under this provision, should a catastrophic event take place, the USDA would be able to immediately tap this fund to hasten recovery efforts and come to the aid of impacted farmers and producers. Texas producers wouldn’t have to wait for Congress to approve additional funding requests. Texans who suffer loss of crops, livestock, or other produce would be eligible for benefits, up to 75 percent of what was lost in the disaster.
I have long advocated for the creation of an emergency reserve fund government-wide to help citizens impacted by natural disasters. Creating a contingency fund to provide resources for response and recovery would ensure that adequate and immediate funding is available. It would prevent agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, from having to draw emergency spending from their annual budgets, which currently don’t have sufficient funding for small or large scale domestic disasters. A rainy day fund would also give Congress a more efficient, less contentious, and fiscally responsible process for providing relief in times of domestic emergencies.
While I will continue to push for a national rainy day fund, I am pleased we are getting closer to an emergency fund for agriculture disasters as the 2007 Farm Bill proceeds to a conference committee with the House. Once the differences between the House and Senate passed bills are reconciled, the Farm Bill will be ready to be signed into law.
As Congress looks for better ways to respond to and recover from catastrophic events, individuals must also take steps to protect their families and their homes. I urge all Texans to establish a family safety or evacuation plan for floods, fire, severe storms, tornadoes and—if you live in a coastal area—hurricanes. It is also important to have good insurance coverage for your home or business, as no amount of government relief can ever be entirely sufficient. I encourage you to visit the Department of Homeland Security’s website, http://www.ready.gov, for general emergency planning advice.
If we work together to prepare for emergencies, we will continue to survive and thrive despite whatever challenges Mother Nature throws in our way.
Kay Bailey Hutchison is the senior Senator from Texas .