FEMA Finalizes New Requirement for State Disaster Plans to Consider Climate Change Impacts

The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced yesterday afternoon a change in its requirements for State Hazard Mitigation Plans that NRDC has been advocating for nearly three years. These plans, which states develop in order to prepare for future natural disasters, must now consider the projected effects of climate change on hazard risks.

Back in 2012, NRDC petitioned the agency to adopt this requirement because most states' plans did not account for climate change when assessing their future vulnerability to natural hazards. Yet as FEMA recognized yesterday, "the challenges posed by climate change, such as more intense storms, frequent heavy precipitation, heat waves, drought, extreme flooding, and higher sea levels, could significantly alter the types and magnitudes of hazards impacting states in the future." It's critical that states begin to plan ahead for these changes and develop strategies to reduce the risk of harm to people and infrastructure.

Over a year ago, FEMA told us that it would be revising its guidance for State Hazard Mitigation Plans to require consideration of climate change, as we had asked. President Obama officially confirmed the change last summer, and in the fall FEMA published a document summarizing the revisions.

We were excited to learn yesterday that FEMA has finalized the proposed changes. Here are all the important details about FEMA's new State Mitigation Plan Review Guidance.

  • State plans must now consider the projected effects of climate change on disaster risk.

The new guidance is clear that in order for a state's plan to be approved by FEMA, thereby making the state eligible to receive federal funding for pre-disaster mitigation projects designed to build resilience, it must "include considerations of changing future conditions, including the effects of long-term changes in weather patterns and climate on the identified hazards."

This is great news. Smart planning will help states save both money and lives. In order for a state's plan to be effective, it must recognize that future hazards may not follow the same pattern as the disasters the state has experienced in the past. That's why the guidance notes that changes in future hazard probability "may include changes in location, increases or decreases to the impacts, and/or extent of known natural hazards, such as floods or droughts."

FEMA states in the guidance that this new requirement is based on an interpretation of federal regulations that NRDC had advanced in our 2012 petition: that the rules "require[] consideration of the probability of future hazard events as part of the risk assessment in order to reduce risks and potential damage." We couldn't agree more.

  • But FEMA is leaving it to the states to determine how they will meet the requirement.

While state plans are now required to consider climate change when assessing future risk, FEMA has not provided any details or guidelines specifying how this should be done.

The guidance says: "Due to the inherent uncertainties with projections of future hazard events, states are expected to look across the whole community of partners (for example, public, private, academic, non-governmental, etc.) to identify the most relevant data and select the most appropriate methodologies to assess risks and vulnerability."

NRDC had urged FEMA to incorporate more detailed information about the minimum standards that would apply to states' assessments of their future hazard risks. There's a wide range of possible interpretations of what it may mean for a state to consider the effects of climate change. We hope that in applying the new guidance, FEMA will ensure states are performing robust and comprehensive assessments of climate risks, and relying on reputable sources of data.

We also hope that FEMA will provide tools to help states that need assistance implementing the new requirement. For example, we have encouraged FEMA to create a data tool that mitigation officials can use to easily access information about how climate change is projected to affect the risk of future natural hazards in their jurisdictions.

  • The guidance places greater emphasis on linking risk assessments and mitigation strategies.

Risk assessments are only useful if they are translated into specific mitigation actions that can be implemented to reduce risk. FEMA has recognized that state plans have not always done this successfully, and the new guidance contains stronger language requiring mitigation actions to be based on the risk assessment component of the plan.

  • The guidance doesn't require states to include the public in the development of plans, as NRDC had requested.

NRDC had asked FEMA to require states to offer an opportunity for public input on their draft plans prior to submitting them to the agency for approval. In our experience, it has been difficult to get courtesy copies of draft plans, much less the opportunity to submit comment and feedback on those drafts.

Unfortunately, FEMA did not include this requirement in the new guidance. We hope that states will improve their public engagement and outreach even in the absence of a federal mandate to do so.

  • State plans must now be approved by the state's highest elected official.

FEMA will now require a state's plan to be approved by the highest elected official in the state. The agency says that this approval "demonstrates commitment to the mitigation strategy and may serve as a means to communicate priorities to entities within the state agencies regarding vulnerability and mitigation measures."

We agree that this new approval requirement will raise the profile of state disaster planning, but we hope that it won't provide an opportunity for elected officials who deny the reality of climate change to interfere in the planning process.

  • The new requirements will go into effect in a year.

The new requirements will apply to plans that are submitted in March 2016 and beyond. This phase-in period allows states some time to begin integrating climate change information into their plans, if they haven't done so already.

About the Authors

Becky Hammer

Staff Attorney, Water program

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