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FEMA Advisory Board Proposes Blockchain to Speed ‘Disaster Dividend’ Payouts

Danny Nelson


America’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is considering a blockchain registry to speed up disaster relief payments.

The proposal by America’s disaster response mitigators comes via a draft text of the National Advisory Council’s (NAC) November report published on Monday. 

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NAC’s recommendation builds on a federal history of considering blockchain applications in disaster relief. Last December, the Department of Defense’s Defense Logistics Agency unit met to discuss how blockchain could have helped the post-Maria effort in Puerto Rico.

The advisory body’s draft text asks FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor to first launch a blockchain pilot program for land registries. The NAC argued that blockchain could simplify and improve the speed of government payouts communities rely on in the wake of natural disasters. 

“In many disasters, such as Hurricanes Maria in Puerto Rico or Harvey in Texas, affected communities may lose the type of information needed to file a claim, such as policy documents, land ownership records, and personal identification, among others,” the draft said.

“By piloting a blockchain-based registry in this manner, FEMA can catalyze cross-sector engagement and develop technology-enabled use cases that can improve the speed of disaster responses and insurance claim payments, without sacrificing accuracy or increasing the risk of fraud.”

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Beyond building a pilot, the NAC recommends that FEMA partner with insurance agencies to launch the service, improving its ability to quickly send its “disaster dividend” or “harm’s way” payouts to those impacted by disasters.

Decentralization for disasters

In its draft report, the NAC said FEMA should pursue blockchain solutions for disaster relief because of the advantages of maintaining records in multiple locations.

Because of decentralization, a blockchain solution would save important information across many servers, effectively neutralizing the threat of a single point-of-failure that one flood could inflict, in terms of damage from a major storm if all the data were kept in one physical location.

“Their principal attractiveness is their decentralized structure, which improves resilience and recovery efforts in a disaster because critical information is stored off-site and in a highly trusted, secure platform.”

The NAC previously issued recommendations around blockchain technology, though not for disaster relief payouts. After its November 2018 meeting, the council recommended former Administrator Brock Long launch a blockchain pilot for FEMA’s “inefficient” and disparate housing assistance programs. 

“Worse this inefficiency places a tremendous burden on disaster survivors trying to cope with multiple program requirements, lost documentation, and redundant requests while still reeling from disaster effects,” NAC Chairman Nim Kidd said in the letter. 

Any on-the-ground application of the NAC’s proposal is far off. 

Administrator Gaynor would need to adopt NAC’s final recommendations, and then FEMA would need  “to convene, scope, and monitor a pilot project between key stakeholders, including technology firms, academic institutions,” plus recruit state and local leaders who might want to get involved.

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