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The Hidden Post-Natural-Disaster Threat: the 2020 Census

Communities that have lost population temporarily are at risk of an undercount, costing them state and federal aid for a decade. But with a little help from Congress, there are solutions.

A home in Panama City, Fla., destroyed by Hurricane Michael on October 17, 2018. Photo by Jennifer Patrick. [LANNIS WATERS/]
For communities struck by disaster, the arc of media and government response to hurricanes, tornadoes, fires and floods is a familiar one: Satellite images of an approaching calamity crowd the corner of the TV screen. Reporters arrive in windbreakers adorned with their network's logo; elected officials hold news conferences, urge evacuation, provide vital safety information and offer much-appreciated words of comfort.

But it is after the immediate crisis has passed and years of recovery are underway that the longest-lasting consequence of such a disaster becomes apparent: the decade-long impact delivered by the results of a census that captures an acute, if only temporary, population loss.

For communities that experienced disasters in the later years of the last decade and saw significant population losses — from the wildfires in California, to floods and tornadoes, to Hurricane Michael, which leveled communities in the Florida Panhandle in 2018 — the 2020 Census could not come at a worse time. Our community of Panama City, Fla., for example, lost 30 percent of its residents. We are rebuilding, but it will be years before our population returns to anything close to the pre-Michael level.

With Census data determining how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal and state aid, for everything from roads to schools to health care and other social services, are awarded over the ensuing decade (as well as being used for redistricting for political representation), its importance to all communities — not only those losing population but also those anticipating hyper-growth — cannot be overestimated.

Getting an accurate count is always a challenge, but this year's is made even more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic. While the Census Bureau is mandated to enumerate the nation's population based on where they resided on April 1, as a result of the pandemic deadlines for in-person Census-taking and producing the final count have been extended.

That's an encouraging sign of flexibility, but doesn't go far enough to address the very real threat of a significant undercount in communities that have experienced temporary population losses in the wake of natural disasters. Nevertheless, there are avenues by which communities can ameliorate the impact of a one-off Census undercount. In our case, for example, the city and Bay County are advocating for a multi-part solution with the help from our representative in Congress, Neal Dunn, and Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott.

First, we are seeking the authorization to substitute the results of a subsequent Census for the government-delivered results from the 2020 count. We plan to coordinate with the Commerce Department to undertake this initiative and to contract with a Commerce Department- and Census Bureau-approved expert to undertake this effort, which likely would be conducted in 2023 after most of our displaced residents have rebuilt and returned. Securing this latitude would be enormously helpful to truncate the negative impact of a census undercount.

We are also asking that the costs of this subsequent census be borne, at least in part, by the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Commerce Department, rather than solely by local taxpayers. Compared to the vast resources of the national government, federally declared disaster zones are woefully ill-equipped to bear the additional financial burden of a million-dollar-plus private subsequent Census.

Lastly, and equally important, is the need to obtain a legally binding agreement that all financial aid and other forms of assistance and representation will be based on the results of the most recent Census, in this case the subsequent, more accurate alternative count.

For towns, cities and counties that are already coping with an eroding sales and property tax base post-disaster — which is further compounded by the coronavirus — now is precisely the wrong time to burden local governments further. Initiatives like the one we are pursuing offer hope to communities across the nation that have been devastated by recent natural disasters. By approving these modest requests, Washington lawmakers can demonstrate their leadership and, most important, protect these communities and their citizens from being harmed a second time.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

City manager of Panama City, Fla.
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