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May 27, 2013

Hurricanes get attention, but droughts can cost more, according to disaster experts

L-R: Elton Lester, deputy general counsel for housing programs at U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; Antoinette M. Jackson, director of the affordable housing and governmental relations sections at the law firm of Coats, Rose, Yale, Ryman & Lee; Carey Whitehead, attorney adviser for the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Community Planning and Development; Lauren Lyon-Collis, lawyer with Reno & Cavanaugh PLLC

L-R: Elton Lester, deputy general counsel for housing programs at U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; Antoinette M. Jackson, director of the affordable housing and governmental relations sections at the law firm of Coats, Rose, Yale, Ryman & Lee; Carey Whitehead, attorney adviser for the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Community Planning and Development; Lauren Lyon-Collis, lawyer with Reno & Cavanaugh PLLC

Though Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy caused billions of dollars in damage, the disasters that can draw more federal aid are actually droughts, said Antoinette M. Jackson, director of the affordable housing and governmental relations sections at the law firm of Coats, Rose, Yale, Ryman & Lee.

“They are unfortunately disasters that do not get the same kind of conversations or visibility brought to them,” Jackson said at the _ Forum on Affordable Housing and Community Development Law Annual Conference in Washington, D.C.

Jackson, a member of the forum, said there have been 30 major disasters since Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

“One of the concerns over the years has been the number of disasters are increasing,” she said. “Not because we have more disasters than we had in the past, but the political factors and other factors that go into the designation of a disaster, and so therefore they are on the rise.”

Because of the rise in designations, federal agencies are working to ensure the response is the same for all disasters because historically they were handled in a “convoluted way,” Jackson said. The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988 established a system for the president to declare a disaster and activate financial and physical assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“The Stafford Act brought together the first efforts to establish a framework,” Jackson added.

Carey Whitehead, attorney adviser for the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Community Planning and Development, said FEMA can now move quickly in a disaster because it has the authority to direct other agencies to act. Whitehead said the framework for disaster response has evolved significantly since Hurricane Katrina. She encouraged audience members to view key documents for National Preparedness Frameworks here.

“This panel is one that we wish we did not have to have,” said Elton Lester, moderator for the session and deputy general counsel for housing programs at HUD. “But as evidenced by the recent tornadoes in Oklahoma and other recent disasters, we can prepare ourselves — natural occurrences will be more forthcoming, frequent and ultimately devastating.”