When a hurricane threatens our community most city workers have a storm-related task to perform, and they perform it well. The storm-niche I’ve found for myself as a commissioner is to relay as much truth and information to the community through social media and personal conversation as possible.

Throughout the process I try to learn from staff what we can do better, or at least differently. One of the things we can do, I believe, is to advocate for a different mechanism of funding disaster relief operations.

While Gainesville has never borne the brunt of a direct hurricane strike, as recently as 2017 Hurricane Irma knocked on our door. What you may not know about Irma is that it cost the city of Gainesville millions of dollars, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has only reimbursed the city a few hundred thousand, more than two years later. Alachua County had a similar experience.

Not long ago I read a news story about the recovery from Hurricane Michael in Florida’s Panhandle. One of the things that most stood out to me from that story was that the damage to Bay County’s public infrastructure alone was essentially twice their county’s total annual budget — which means that their public infrastructure may never recover.

Current federal and state disaster relief processes nationwide are designed as just that: relief. The long-held principle is that natural disasters are the responsibility of local government and that higher levels with exponentially larger checkbooks will substantially refill local coffers.

The FEMA reimbursement process can change based on a variety of factors that have nothing to do with the work at hand, and local officials are left to the occasional whim of a rotating cast of auditors. If there was ever a time when this model was functional it has long-since passed.

The scale of natural disasters has grown for a variety of reasons. Weather events themselves, whether they be hurricanes along the coastal South, tornadoes and rain events across the Midwest or wildfires in the West, are increasingly more severe.

Population continues to increase (particularly here in Florida) and normal infrastructure replacement continues to be deferred across the nation. All of this increases financial pressure on local governments. Cities and counties are required to essentially float loans to Washington and Tallahassee on a handshake “trust us” basis.

We are rapidly approaching a time — and may already have reached it — when the old system of “relief” is no longer tenable. As we learn from the Panhandle’s experience with Michael and the Midwest’s struggle with flooding, it is not possible for cities and counties to keep enough cash reserves on hand to meet the growing scale of regularly occurring disasters.

None of this is partisan or a matter of malice or incompetence. It’s just the way the system works. Fortunately, systems can be changed. Processes can be improved. I believe it is our responsibility as local officials to bring this to your attention so that we can, together, bring it to the attention of Congress.

What changes would I like to see? Flip the system to a process of up-front funding. When an event is impending, fund an account earmarked for early reimbursement and draw against it as needed during the early and continuing stages of recovery.

If greater funds are disbursed than were necessary, the local government would be responsible for repaying them to FEMA. Let THAT process stretch forward rather than expecting local governments and residents to be the primary funders.

This is a massive oversimplification of what a new system would look like, but it’s a beginning. There may be other, better ways to revise the system, but the conversation needs to begin now.

Again, this is not a partisan or confrontational issue but one of re-visioning and re-tooling an outdated system. It does not represent any sort of financial mismanagement at any level of government, rather an entirely predictable financial concern for any local government struck by disastrous weather events.

Knowing what we do about the increasing severity and quantity of disasters and about the growth and density of our population, we must think differently about how we fund disaster management. A better system awaits our collective action.

Harvey Ward is a Gainesville city commissioner.