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June 10, 2012

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America's hurricane roulette
By JAMES LEE WITT and JAMES LOY

AS THE FIRST named storms Alberto and Beryl have now passed, we make an urgent call to action to Congress and the president: It is time to better prepare ourselves before the next crisis.

America's "Hurricane Roulette," which gambles with lives and livelihoods, can't be allowed to play on anymore.

Science hasn't reached the point of diminishing or changing the course of these storms. But we can be much better prepared so future hurricanes do not cause nearly as much devastation to our communities or seriously threaten our financial security.

Taxpayers will no longer be able to come to the financial rescue as they customarily have because the cost has become unacceptable and because Congress said no to more bailouts as part of last year's debt ceiling agreement.

Even Congress had to recognize that the old system of opening the taxpayer spigot after each hurricane was fiscally irresponsible and not a sustainable or sensible policy.

We can breathe easy when storms like Alberto and Beryl come early and miss us. But the same won't be said after the next Katrina-like event inevitably occurs. That type of Category Five storm is long overdue for East Coast areas far more populated than Louisiana.

So, what can be done now?

Legislation to change the way we pay for disaster recovery has received broad geographic and bipartisan support but has not been sent to the president - yet. ProtectingAmerica.org supported legislation that passed the House of Representatives in 2007 and the House Financial Services Committee in 2010 with bipartisan sponsorship by members from more than 30 states.

The challenge is twofold now: to act before the next catastrophic hurricane (or earthquake) and to fill the financial vacuum left by the debt ceiling agreement.

The solution we support would mandate a better and more proactive approach and leverage a stronger public-private partnership. It would strengthen America's financial infrastructure by building a privately funded national catastrophe fund. It would be publicly administered, operate on a tax-exempt and non-profit basis and require private insurance companies to fund it.

No taxpayer dollars would be used to build the fund, and the law would protect taxpayers from the inevitable after-the-fact bailout we rely too much on today. In a period of high deficits and growing concern over our debt, fiscal responsibility demands that we effectively prepare for events we know are inevitable.

The catastrophe fund would help ensure that first responders are fully prepared and equipped to respond during those crucial early hours after an earthquake strikes. It would also leverage state participation to support better land use policies and mitigation efforts to reduce our vulnerability.

This proactive approach is especially important this year, as we commemorate the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, which left 175,000 people homeless and dependent on government-supported recovery efforts. We can't risk letting the damage that occurred in 1992 happen again without the necessary protections in place.

Too many Americans - from the Gulf Coast, up the Eastern Seaboard and across the country in areas affected by tornadoes and earthquakes - have learned the hard way what many members of Congress have yet to figure out: Natural catastrophes are not a matter of if, but a matter of when.

Smart people plan and prepare for the inevitable. The time to act is now, before it is too late.

James Lee Witt and James Loy are co-chairs of ProtectingAmerica.org. Witt, chairman of Witt Associates, a public safety and crisis management consulting firm, was director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Bill Clinton. Admiral Loy is senior counselor at The Cohen Group and was commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard and deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush.

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