The catastrophe in Japan is another tragic reminder that we need to better prepare and protect our own communities here at home from the wrath of Mother Nature. After all, substitute the word "hurricane" for "earthquake", and New Yorkers would think about their own vulnerability.
A single hurricane hitting New York on the scale of one that occurred in 1938 could easily surpass Japan's epic losses. And the ripple effect would be felt financially in all of the state's 62 counties, not only in the span of land directly hit. We are talking about a catastrophe with losses so steep it would take the state years to recover.
Equally alarming, storm forecasters say events like a repeat of the 1938 hurricane that hit New York are statistically long overdue to happen again.
It has never been perceived as politically popular for elected officials to take steps to better prepare for, and protect against, a catastrophe that has yet to happen. We need to change that perception and recognize that our current reliance on taxpayer bailouts in our darkest hours represents a systemic failure that must be corrected.
After Hurricane Katrina, Americans came to the aid of their own to help people recover and rebuild communities. From 2001-2009, the federal government and taxpayers provided $130 billion to help their fellow Americans recover from Katrina and similar natural catastrophes.
While this unprecedented sum for catastrophe relief was painfully shouldered over most of the last decade by taxpayers alone, Japan eclipsed this figure within hours, and is expected to spend over $200 billion to re-build from the earthquake and tsunami.
Even while aftershocks are still rumbling, it's not too soon to reflect on the similar risks we face in the United States.
If Katrina was considered a meteorological anomaly, or a catastrophic California earthquake a fantasy, then perhaps it would be okay to leave well enough alone.
But, who really believes that?
So, why are communities not fully prepared for catastrophes and governments and taxpayers left on the financial hook all the time?
Shouldn't we change the way we think about paying for, preparing for and protecting against catastrophes, from the irresponsible it-may-never-happen-in-my-time to the responsible it's-time-to-deal-with-it?
In an era where policymakers are searching for ways to curtail spiraling budgets and deficits, we need legislation that creates a viable way for cutting costs, incentivizes efforts to reduce exposure to future catastrophes, and ends expectations for a government bailout.
Here's the solution: Congress should create a privately funded public partnership that would pre-fund the financial costs of a large-scale natural catastrophe. Such a program would leverage the private sector to serve homeowners. It would lower their premiums by an estimated $11 billion per year while building additional capacity and stability through non-profit catastrophe backstops. A similar bill - the Homeowners Defense Act (HR 3355) passed the House of Representatives in 2007 with strong bi-partisan support.
Critics claim that a national catastrophe fund is unnecessary and would involve the federal government in something new. But with the current system of federal emergency bailouts, the government already acts as the de facto insurer of last resort - or only resort. The proposal would change the current dynamic of disaster relief from reacting and responding to preparing and protecting.
Much like the customary precautions taken by coastal residents to brace for a hurricane by boarding up windows, removing items from their property that could become missiles and generally battening down the hatches, this idea performs the same function. It would take similarly prudent financial preparations, and not lapse into a taxpayer-funded government bailout. A catastrophe fund would even provide money for mitigation help for police, fire, EMT and emergency management organizations before a disaster strikes to ward off potential damages.
But, with Katrina shrinking in the rearview mirror, some members of Congress have become complacent with the misguided notion that such a natural catastrophe will not strike again.
The threat of a major catastrophe has not gone away; the potential costs of another bailout grow with every passing day.
The writers are co-chairs of ProtectingAmerica.org. Mr. James Lee Witt is CEO of Witt Associates and was director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Clinton. Admiral James M. Loy was commandant of the US Coast Guard and deputy secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush.