With the climate emergency creating dangerous weather across the nation, from historic droughts in the Southwest to a withering heat dome across the Midwest to an earlier heat dome in the Pacific Northwest, Congress is working on much-needed investments in climate resilience. Both the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework and President Biden’s American Jobs Plan call for about $50 billion for climate resilience investments, which would help ensure our housing, roads, subways, water treatment plants and other infrastructure are ready for the changes in heat, flooding and storms coming in the future.
While these investments are crucial, it’s also important to get federal policy right. Here are a few ideas on how best to focus support for climate resilience, achieve more equitable outcomes, and help ensure the funding reaches the communities that are most in need:
Address affordability of flood insurance. Congress could use this moment to address a long-standing problem of the National Flood Insurance Program—making coverage affordable to low-income renters and homeowners. In addition, Congress needs to make sure FEMA can deliver flood mitigation assistance to the same low-income renters and homeowners, because affordable insurance doesn’t stop floods from happening. Passing this would help address a major obstacle to flood insurance reform and would also go a long way towards accomplishing the administration’s Justice 40 Initiative.
Implement Flood Protection Standard for federally funded infrastructure. Congress should require all projects that receive funds to comply with the Federal Flood Protection Standard. On May 20th, President Biden re-instated a Federal Flood Protection Standard. That’s great news, but the White House has yet to give agencies a deadline to adopt implementing regulations or guidance. Absent that direction, “they run the risk of a lot of money going out the door to build things that fall in the water,” as I told the New York Times. If Congress appropriates hundreds of billions of dollars for infrastructure, there is nothing currently in place to ensure that housing, roads and bridges, public transit, water and sewage treatment facilities—or anything—will survive future climate-induced flooding disasters. Absent an aggressive implementation timeline from the Biden administration, Congress should establish a 12-month implementation schedule for all federal agencies.
Fund DHS and FEMA to assess their capacity and that of state and local emergency managers. GAO has recently documented the capacity shortfalls within FEMA, as well as state and local emergency management offices. Congress should give FEMA the funding to assess the agency's future staffing and capacity needs, as well as the needs of state and local governments. The assessment should look at what's needed to respond to multiple simultaneous disasters, expand hazard mitigation programs, and administer large-scale climate adaptation efforts.
Within FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure Communities program (BRIC), create a set-aside for building hazard mitigation capacity in frontline communities. For any funding it directs to BRIC, Congress should target funding for low-income communities, communities of color, and Tribal and rural communities. These communities need capacity in order to plan for and adapt to the effects of climate change. They often lack the staff and expertise to develop plans, manage projects, or even prepare grant applications—meaning that much-needed federal funding is out of reach, as evidenced by the recent BRIC grants. Addressing this capacity gap is also consistent with the Justice 40 Initiative.
Double annual funding for FEMA’s Emergency Management Performance Grant (EMPG) funding from $350 million (FFY20 Appropriation) to $700 million per year. In addition to BRIC, EMPG funding is specifically for increasing state and local emergency management and planning capacity. This program is underfunded. Of the funding that states do receive, relatively little goes to support the hazard mitigation and disaster response missions according to GAO. GAO also pointed out that FEMA and Department of Homeland Security spend about 1/3 of the amount on building capacity for disasters and climate resilience as Congress appropriates for anti-terrorism capacity. It’s time for Congress to look at the fires, heat waves, floods, droughts, and other disasters happening around us every day and recognize the need to dramatically increase our investment in emergency management capacity.
Dedicate 20 percent of EMPG funding to build emergency management and hazard mitigation capacity in low-income communities, communities of color, and tribal and rural communities. EMPG funding is essential for underserved communities to be able to plan, prepare, and adequately respond to disasters when they happen. When local governments lack the ability to handle a disaster, state and federal officials must shoulder more of that responsibility. Congress should also give those communities a better cost share for EMPG. Currently these grants require recipients to match every federal dollar with a non-federal dollar. For low-income communities, there is no way they can come up with that match. A tiered cost share would maintain the dollar-for-dollar match for more affluent communities and disadvantaged communities could get 75%, 90%, or even 100% of staff, training, and other costs covered by federal resources. Changing the cost share is essential for FEMA to meet the administration’s Justice 40 Initiative goals.
Establish a set-aside for nature-based solutions in BRIC. This set-aside will create incentives for projects that protect, restore, and enhance natural floodplains, wetlands, combat urban heat island, and provide a multitude of benefits for people and ecosystems. Currently, nature-based solutions are at a disadvantage for funding compared to traditional “hard” or “structural” hazard mitigation projects. Creating a set aside would allow those projects to compete in their own pool of funding and make it clear to state and local governments that applications would receive a fair prioritization.
Congress should make additional appropriations to FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA) grants. FMA grants are normally limited to the small amount of funding generated through flood insurance surcharges. Congress should appropriate additional funds for this important flood mitigation program. FMA is the smallest of FEMA’s hazard mitigation assistance (HMA) programs, but it is the only one focused exclusively on flood hazard mitigation. It provides assistance to owners of repeatedly flooded homes and offers much better federal/non-federal cost share than FEMA’s other HMA programs (HMGP and BRIC). FMA provides 100% of funding for mitigation of severe repetitive loss properties and 90% of funding for repetitive loss properties. Congress should prioritize this funding for low income homeowners and rental properties consistent with the Biden administration’s Justice 40 Initiative.
Direct FEMA to develop future conditions flood maps. In 2012, Congress directed FEMA to begin using future sea level rise and precipitation projections in the development of flood maps. Since then, FEMA has issued or updated more than 8,000 flood maps across the country—none of which include future climate projections. Since these maps are used by engineers, architects, and planners to decide where and how to build, this omission of climate informed flood projections is causing communities to build in increasingly unsafe areas. FEMA must take action to fulfill its mandate. Given the breadth of the task, Congress should direct FEMA to create a pilot program in three coastal and two inland communities that have outdated flood maps and are at a high risk of flooding and develop new flood maps that include a future conditions information layer. FEMA could test various approaches for developing the best methods and publish the agency’s findings in a publicly accessible report. Based on the report’s conclusions concerning best method, Congress should direct FEMA to expand the pilot program to all future map updates.
Don’t forget about heat! The U.S. and Canada have experienced blistering record high temperatures this year, with costly consequences for people who lack air conditioning in addition to public transit, bridges, and other infrastructure. Despite the pressing threat of extreme heat to our health and economy and its clear link to climate change, heat isn’t explicitly mentioned in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework. Helping communities cope with extreme heat is a relatively small part of federal hazard mitigation spending now, but it’s something we need to ramp up dramatically. That’s especially true in communities of color and low income communities, where urban trees and parks are scarce compared to whiter, more affluent communities.
As the U.S. Senate and the White House negotiate on the details of a $579 billion infrastructure package, climate resilience has been a consistent area of agreement. That bodes well for future bipartisan efforts to address the need for massive investments and policy changes that address climate resilience and adaptation.
There are very few details about how Congress intends to distribute the $50 billion in funds, but it’s expected that the bulk of these funds will be distributed through FEMA’s new Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program (BRIC) and HUD’s Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Relief (CDBG-DR).
There are some big questions about FEMA’s BRIC program, based on the $500 million in grants FEMA announced for the program’s inaugural year and the fact that only a handful of states were awarded the vast majority of funding.
NRDC’s suggestions might help address some of those simmering concerns about BRIC and would go even further towards making just and equitable climate resilience a priority for the nation.
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The events of 2020, and of the past few years, have exposed the need to bolster the nation’s emergency and disaster management capacity—a fact that is borne out in two recent reports from the GAO.
The nation needs to break the habit of simply responding to natural disasters by throwing massive amounts of money and effort at them after-the-fact. And the nation needs a Federal Emergency Management Agency that can better support communities' efforts to avoid becoming the next disaster.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recently released a report describing how the federal flood insurance program could be reformed to provide low-income households affordable options for insurance coverage. However, flood insurance does nothing to help a homeowner avoid flooding at the outset