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Being Prepared

May 30, 2013

By U.S. Senator Deb Fischer

This week, severe weather warnings and alerts were issued across the state. Eastern Nebraska experienced flooding from heavy rain, while hail, high winds, and tornadoes swept across central and western Nebraska.

The recent horrific tornadoes in Oklahoma remind us that natural disasters aren’t just heartbreaking news stories quickly forgotten, but rather are enduring challenges for the impacted families and communities.

Lives are tragically lost; homes, neighborhoods, and communities are destroyed; precious belongings and beloved keepsakes are wiped away.

Our thoughts continue to be with the victims recovering from these recent tragedies. We hope and pray that these disasters do not occur, but in the case of severe weather, we must be prepared – as individuals and as a Nation - for all possible scenarios.

Each year, Congress provides money for the Disaster Relief Fund to provide assistance to storm-ravaged communities designated by the president as disasters. Recently, the amount appropriated for the Disaster Relief Fund has rarely been enough to provide sufficient aid. In 18 of the past 25 years, supplemental appropriations bills have been necessary to offer additional funding for disaster assistance.

The problem in these cases is that the money for unexpected disaster relief is treated as “emergency spending,” meaning it is spending outside of what is already allocated for the fiscal year. This funding is not required to be offset by spending reductions elsewhere. Unfortunately, these bills have also served as vehicles for unrelated, sometimes wasteful, spending.

For example, Congress recently approved $60.4 billion in supplemental funding for disaster relief for Mid-Atlantic states affected by Hurricane Sandy. While there were immediate and legitimate relief efforts that were needed, millions of taxpayer dollars were spent on extraneous government projects typically approved in the normal appropriations process.

Over $300 million dollars was allocated to support AMTRAK, without a specific plan for how this money would be spent. Despite the fact that NASA called the damage from the hurricane to its facilities “minimal,” the agency received $15 million for repairs. As many victims of Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey were still in need of shelter, the legislation appropriated $2 million to repair damaged roofs of museums in Washington, D.C.

Additionally, 64 percent of the “emergency” spending in the bill is not slated to be spent for nearly two years; clearly such funding is not for emergency relief, but instead serves other purposes.

The result? Over the past 25 years, supplemental appropriations for disaster relief have added nearly $150 billion to the national debt.

I believe providing disaster relief assistance to our fellow Americans is a core duty of a limited government. This responsibility should be carried out in a fiscally responsible manner that effectively provides aid to communities and people in need and ensures taxpayer dollars are spent wisely. To be effective, the money designated must be specifically targeted, and it must be timely.

Though it does have an important role in relief and recovery, the responsibility of disaster preparedness should not rest solely on the federal government. Nebraskans understand this reality, having been tested by droughts, fires, floods, and tornadoes throughout the course of our state’s history. To prevail against severe weather, we prepare ourselves, our land, and our livestock.

Another way to prepare for severe weather is to be knowledgeable. I encourage all Nebraskans to take advantage of the many safety and preparedness resources available in our state. The Nebraska Emergency Management Agency has a Severe Storms Guide to Survival available for tips on how to monitor impending weather conditions.

Recently, I traveled to Fort Kearney’s American Red Cross chapter. Among many of the organization’s helpful safety services, I learned about the mobile phone apps the Red Cross has created specifically for emergency planning. These apps are offered for download so their users can be equipped with safety tips, guidelines, and means of communication during a severe storm.

While there is little we can do to control the weather, it is important that we do what is in our control: have a plan and be prepared.

Thank you for taking part in our democratic process, and I’ll visit with you again next week.

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