Statement of Senator Inhofe on the floor of the Senate on the introduction of S. 1583, the Storm Shelter Tax Relief Act of 2011

(as prepared for delivery) 

Mr. President, being from Oklahoma, I can remember back in the days when they called Oklahoma, southern Kansas, northern Texas, and southwestern Missouri tornado alley. I say to my good friend from Oregon that I have been in aviation for many years. I know people who won't even fly airplanes through what we call tornado alley. But by now I think we know that tornadoes are a daily threat to Americans each spring as severe weather rolls across the country. In the past 30 years, over 34,000 tornadoes have touched down somewhere in the country, which means that one touches down, on average, every 8 hours of each day. This chart right here shows that each one of these little green dots represents a tornado.

As we all witnessed once again this spring, many of these tornadoes grow into very voracious and dangerous storms that bring significant harm to property and life. This year, 57 such tornadoes struck 14 States and claimed 550 lives. Alabama was the hardest hit. I can remember when Oklahoma was ranked as the hardest hit. They had over 240 killed. Missouri also suffered heavily with the loss of 157 people in Joplin. I say to my friend from Missouri, who is on the floor, I was up in Joplin right after that happened, down close to the Oklahoma border. It is something you have to witness before you understand it. In my State of Oklahoma where we have more than our fair share of violent tornadoes, this spring's storms resulted in the death of 14 people and the injury of many others. Until you have this happen, and you go on site, which I always make it a point to do--after each tornado in Oklahoma, you go down and talk to the people. You think of little kids looking for their toys and this type of thing, but they are gone and gone for good.

While this year has seen a large number of fatal tornadoes, they are a nationwide threat each spring. Since 1980, 734 tornadoes have claimed 2,462 lives in at least 37 different States, including 126 in my State of Oklahoma. Unfortunately, many of these lost lives could have been avoided had storm shelters been more widely used.

In the past few months, a number of Oklahomans have asked me if there is a Federal program that promotes the installation of tornado storm shelters. They observed that those individuals who have these storm shelters live through it. They may lose their property, but they live through it. So they think, Well, government gets involved in all of these programs; what are they going to do to help us encourage people to build storm shelters? When I looked into it, I came up emptyhanded despite the fact that hundreds of millions of dollars are obligated each year to mitigate the effects of natural disasters.

Since death is one of the worst effects of natural disasters, one would think tornado storm shelters, which are the safest way to ride out tornadoes, would be a high priority, but only limited funds have been made available in the past, and it has been sporadic and poorly allocated. Most of the funds have been made available through FEMA's Hazardous Mitigation Grant Program, which is a mandatory program that allocates funds to States to help them better prepare for future disasters. States are able to direct some of this money to residential storm shelter construction, but to do this they have to go through a lot of hoops--through a lengthy process of coordinating a program with FEMA. Needless to say, it is a bureaucratic nightmare and hugely expensive.

Oklahoma did this after the devastating tornadoes of May 3, 1999. Fifty people died and many others were injured that day. As the recovery effort took hold, it became clear to public leaders that staggeringly few Oklahomans had storm shelters accessible for their homes. Because of this, Oklahoma's Department of Emergency Management worked with FEMA to create a temporary rebate program to encourage individuals to install storm shelters in their homes. The rebate was worth $2,000, and the funding cap was set at $6 million.

Unfortunately, the program didn't perform as well as they would have liked. It was a popular program and funding depleted quickly. But because of the rebate amount, only 3,000 homeowners were able to take advantage of the program, despite its $6 million funding level. We are talking about in the State of Oklahoma.

Furthermore, because this program was run through FEMA, it had a lot of paperwork requirements and was time consuming for the State to actually formalize. The ultimate decision of who received the rebate rested with FEMA and the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management and they decided who received the rebate and who did not. If you ask me, that is a pretty expensive, poorly designed program, but that is generally the way FEMA structures these programs when States go to the trouble of requesting them. All told, FEMA's sporadic Hazard Mitigation Grant Program for residential storm shelters has supported the construction of only 15,000 storm shelters at a staggering cost of $35 million. That is $2,000 for each storm shelter.

A different approach is needed to encourage a wider group of people to install tornado storm shelters. This would help mitigate the loss of life during tornadoes. To give people the opportunity--I have 20 kids and grandkids. My first concern every time I hear of a tornado coming is for them. That is why we have introduced this bill called the Storm Shelter Tax Relief Act. It provides a tax deduction of up to $2,500 to any individual who installs a qualified storm shelter. The cost of this deduction is fully offset, which I will explain in a minute, where it is coming from, and there are reductions in other areas of spending.

First, the deduction can be claimed by any taxpayer. If someone in Oklahoma, Kentucky, or Tennessee decides they need a storm shelter at their house, they can pay to have one installed and then claim the incentive by deducting up to $2,500 from their income when they file their taxes. Claiming this incentive would not require dealing with a big bureaucracy. One doesn't have to fill out the forms. One does not have to go through all the redtape. That is one of the reasons people don't do it under the existing programs. As I said before, previous programs that have been administered through FEMA place the power of the shelter incentive into the hands of an agency and not a family, not individuals. The agency then decides who does and does not receive the incentive. I think it is best when this middleman can be avoided, and a tax deduction does that. The Tax Code is blind and provides the incentive to anyone who decides in their best judgment that they need a storm shelter.

Lastly, and probably most importantly, the tax deduction is a better allocation of scarce taxpayer resources. A rebate that covers a large portion of a shelter's cost, as the Oklahoma program did, can foster moral hazard. What I mean is that when free money is on the table, people generally take it. In this case, people may take the rebate to buy a storm shelter because it is free, not because it is what they need. A tax deduction doesn't allow this because the actual incentive is much lower in value. No one is going to go out and spend $2,000 or more on a storm shelter because they get to write that amount off of their taxable income. Nobody does that. A rational individual would only go out to buy a shelter if they know they need one and then it has the added benefit of being deducted from their income, so it is a much better way of approaching it. On the aggregate level, this allows a lot more people to get the incentive at the same cost compared to the rebate programs that have been used in the past. A tax deduction provides a nudge to taxpayers to take practical steps to stay safe in areas where tornadoes are common. It is a commonsense approach and a better way to use taxpayer resources.

Further, this proposal's $41 million cost is fully paid for by rescinding funds authorized for storm shelter construction grants through the programs administered through HUD. In other words, we are doing this program and providing countless more shelters at a cost that would merely mean a tax deduction, and it is going to have a lot more people participating in the program. This means that existing unspent HUD funds that are duplicative of other FEMA spending will be redirected to a more effective policy in order to accomplish the same goal: Encourage the installation of more storm shelters to save lives from deadly tornadoes.

Many may wonder why this is something the Federal Government should be doing. In reality, this falls squarely within the purpose of the hazard mitigation priorities of the Federal Government. FEMA defines hazardous mitigation as ``any sustained action taken to reduce or eliminate long-term risk to life and property from a hazard event.'' HMGP regulations state that projects ``retrofitting structures ..... to minimize damages from high winds, earthquake, flood, wildfire, or other natural hazards'' are eligible for the expenditure of program dollars. The main goal of all this spending is to reduce the likelihood of losses of life and property, and retrofitting buildings to lesson the likelihood of damage caused by tornadoes is an eligible expense. That is what this tax deduction does.

Furthermore, the threat of deadly and dangerous tornadoes stretches far across the Nation. We saw the first map, but this map shows it is not just the tornado alley I referred to right here. With the exception of mountainous areas here, the danger zone is all across America. Not surprisingly, Oklahoma is right in the center. When we look at where deadly tornadoes have occurred during the past 30 years, it is spread across the entire eastern half of the country. All the States in red have had at least one deadly tornado every other year since 1980, and most of them have had even more. This may be surprising, but the threat is real. It needs to be addressed. More tornado storm shelters need to be constructed around the country and Federal policies encouraging this need to be changed. That is why we are introducing the Storm Shelter Tax Relief Act. The number of this bill, I say to my colleagues, is S. 1583. It was introduced today. I think those of us who have lived in these tornado-prone areas--I can tell stories about tornadoes picking up a horse and replacing it, dropping it someplace. In my personal experience, my wife was after me about 50 years ago when we had a place up in the country--we still have the same place--and I had a red Jeep. That red Jeep was one we had for a long time. She said, How come you don't have that insured? I said, What could happen to a red Jeep in the middle of the country in Oklahoma? Well, a tornado came along, picked up a tree and dropped it right on top of my red Jeep. It cut it in half. So they are totally unpredictable.

I can tell more stories about Moore, OK, when we had our 1999 tornado where everything was devastated on one side of the street and nothing was touched on the other side of the street.

It is an art to understanding where these are coming from. We now have developed that art. There is not a person who could be in the path of a tornado who doesn't have the facilities and the resources to see what is out there and where it is coming. What they don't have is a way, if it is unavoidable, to protect themselves if it hits them. The obvious answer is a storm shelter.

I appreciate the Senator from Missouri, who is going to speak next, cosponsoring this bill. We would like to have more cosponsors. We have every intention of getting this passed.

With that, I yield the floor.