On Oct. 9, U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) announced the introduction of The Disaster Learning and Life Saving Act of 2020. This bipartisan legislation would create a new, permanent and independent board to study the underlying causes of disaster-related fatalities and property damage nationwide.The National Disaster Safety Board (NDSB) would make recommendations to all levels of government on how to improve the resiliency of communities across the country.
I was so excited about the proposed legislation that I called Sen. Cassidy’s office the following Monday morning and offered to assist with the bill’s passage. After past disasters, ordinary citizens have had to spend enormous chunks of their lives calling for greater independence and transparency in disaster investigations.
As a New Orleans resident and Hurricane Katrina survivor, I spent several years of my life requesting an independent, bipartisan investigation of the levee breaches. In October 2005, the US Army Corps of Engineers announced it would convene an investigation of the levee failures––a clear conflict of interest. The Army Corps designs and builds levees. Pressure on the Corps to allow external peer review ultimately resulted in investigative conclusions that faulted the federal agency for its engineering mistakes. Unfortunately, The 8/29 Investigation , which would have established a team to look at the failure of our flood protection system in response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, failed to get the Congressional support needed for passage.
Sally Regenhard, founder of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, spent many years of her life fighting for skyscraper safety and building code reform after the 9/11 attacks. Her son, Christian Michael Regenhard, assigned to FDNY’s Ladder 131, lost his life that day.
Regenhard saw the success of her efforts in the passage of the National Construction Safety Team Act , which gives the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) the responsibility to dispatch teams of experts within 48 hours after major building disasters. Her advocacy led to the investigation of the World Trade Center disaster by the NIST and direct improvements in our national building and fire codes.
The Schatz-Cassidy press release says that policymakers rely on a patchwork of studies, after-action reports, audits, and media reports to understand the impacts of natural disasters. The reports are inconsistent and vulnerable to political pressure. My research revealed that members of Congress have been pressured by media reports that were often incorrect or that presented the information backwards.
Supportive colleagues believe that my work to find the cause of the levee failures during Katrina may have been part of the motivation for the creation of The Disaster Learning and Life Saving Act of 2020. It’s a wonderful policy change for the people of this country. Senators Cassidy and Schatz recognize that climate change is causing more frequent and severe natural disasters. Everyone in the country needs this bill. I support this bipartisan bill 100 percent! But I hope that we won’t need it.
Sandy Rosenthal is founder of Levees.org and author of “Words Whispered in Water: Why the Levees Broke during Hurricane Katrina” (Mango, August 2020).
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