Last year’s record-breaking disasters—including hurricanes, wildfires and floods—were a reminder of how climate change and faulty development policies are colliding to create dangerous and costly outcomes for the American public. While much attention is focused on post-disaster recovery, we need to invest much more in preparing for disasters before they happen. The good news is that the omnibus budget deal recently passed by Congress appropriated significant funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to help foster community resilience, in many cases undoing steep cuts that had been proposed by the Trump administration.
FEMA and HUD’s role in building disaster resilience
The omnibus budget deal recently passed by Congress was clearly influenced by the unprecedented series of disasters in 2017. There seems to be a dawning sense of new realities regarding extreme weather (even if some prefer to disavow climate science). We saw this reflected in the budgets of FEMA and HUD.
FEMA administers several programs that help states, territories, and tribal governments build back after disasters as well as invest in preparedness measures to reduce the risks and costs of future disasters. Done right, with future climate and other conditions in mind, these grants can be a powerful catalyst for building community resilience.
Key FEMA programs include:
- The Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which helps communities implement measures to reduce long-term risks to people and property from hazards after a presidential major disaster declaration. The HMGP provides funding for a range of activities including voluntary home buyouts, home elevation and infrastructure retrofits and is generally 15 percent of the total amount of Federal assistance provided to a State, Territory, or federally-recognized tribe following a major disaster declaration. To mark 30 years of this program, FEMA has created an online data visualization resource that summarizes data for HMGP projects by county, state, FEMA region or by Congressional District.
- The Flood Mitigation Assistance Grant Program, which helps state and local governments fund projects and plans to reduce the long-term risk of flood damages for properties insured by the National Flood Insurance Program. In the recently passed omnibus budget, this program’s budget was $175 million.
- The Pre-disaster Mitigation (PDM) Grant Program, authorized by the Stafford Act to help states, local governments, and communities implement long-term measures to reduce the risks and losses from disasters. Typically, FEMA pays for 75 percent of project costs and states match the remaining 25 percent. In the omnibus, this program’s budget was $249.2 million. This was a striking increase from recent years, as one news story put it: that is three times the average annual amount over the past 15 years!
- FEMA’s budget for flood risk mapping is also vital to ensuring that communities, planners, and policymakers are aware of these risks and can take protective measures to limit them. The omnibus budget provided $262.5 million for flood mapping.
HUD’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, especially the CDBG-Disaster Recovery grants, are instrumental in helping low and moderate-income communities—often the hardest hit by disasters—prepare, recover and build resilience. Our nation has long under-invested in safe, affordable housing–a challenge which is further exacerbated when disasters strike. Despite the Trump administration’s efforts to decimate HUD’s budget with an $8.8 billion proposed cut, Congress passed an omnibus budget deal that increased funding for HUD across the board–including $1.36 billion for the HOME Program and $3.3 billion for the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program.
Despite repeated attempts by the Trump administration to cut agency budgets, including FEMA and HUD’s, Congress has recognized the importance of their work for the well-being of the American public, and has maintained or increased funding levels. Unfortunately, funding still remains much below what is needed by communities, especially as the impacts of climate change worsen.
Another continued area of concern that Congress must stand up against is this administration’s attempts to sideline science in policymaking. A recent egregious example of this: FEMA scrubbed all references to “climate change” from its four-year strategic plan, released last month.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
Investing in resilience ahead of disasters—so-called hazard mitigation—is incredibly cost-effective and can save lives. That’s the clear message from an authoritative report from the National Institute of Building Sciences, Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: 2017 Interim Report. Based on nearly a quarter-century of data, the report found that hazard mitigation projects funded by FEMA, HUD and the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) can save the nation, on average, $6 in future disaster costs for every $1 invested (That ratio is even higher, 7:1, for measures to protect against riverine flooding).
The report also found that investing in measures that exceed requirements of the 2015 International Codes, the model building codes developed by the International Code Council, can save the nation $4 for every $1 spent. See the figure below for benefit-cost ratios for these two categories of protective measures to address different types of hazards.
In the aftermath of disasters, communities clearly need stepped-up aid, but the reality is we spend a lopsided amount of money post-disaster and shortchange pre-disaster investments to help limit costs and harms. A 2015 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that from fiscal years 2011-2014, FEMA obligated more than $3.2 billion for the HMGP (Hazard Mitigation Grant Program) post-disaster hazard mitigation while the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program obligated approximately $222 million.
A recent paper from Kousky and Shabnam underscores the challenges, highlighting that:
“For FEMA, almost 90% of ﬂood risk reduction funding comes after a big ﬂood and the HUD CDBG-DR funding is only after a major disaster. Across agencies, absent a severe ﬂood, very few dollars for risk reduction are available.”
We also need more (bipartisan) action to foster preparedness
It’s critical to support and bolster existing federal agency budgets and programs that are helping communities become more resilient, alongside funding to help them cope with and recover from disasters. It’s simply a commonsense way to help protect people and property—and it’s a smart use of taxpayer dollars.
What’s more, budgets for disaster preparedness and protective standards are a bipartisan priority, despite political polarization about some of the underlying climate-related risk factors.
For example, South Carolina Republican Representative Mark Sanford recently called for a flood-ready infrastructure standard, saying:
“The process of flooding and rebuilding has become increasingly costly, as taxpayer dollars are being spent to rebuild or repair public infrastructure – sometimes multiple times. It makes no sense to go through this cyclical and costly process when the simple step of strengthening the federal flood standard can save taxpayer money and protect our communities.”
This standard is sorely needed since the Trump administration rolled back the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard just before Hurricane Harvey hit.
Florida Republican Representative Carlos Curbelo has co-sponsored the National Mitigation Investment Act, which provides incentives for states to invest more in protective building standards.
Federal, state, and local policymakers will also need to do a lot more to align existing and new policies and incentives with worsening risks in a warming world. One important near-term opportunity is reforming the National Flood Insurance Program, which the omnibus bill sets up for reauthorization by July 31 this year.
State and local governments leading the way
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, recently filed legislation for a $1.4 billion climate adaptation bond to help the state prepare for the impacts of climate change. Coming off a brutal series of winter storms, accompanied by damaging coastal flooding, the Governor and the legislature now have an opportunity to pass legislation to address the near and long term threats of climate change.
At the local level we need to see more progress along the lines of the encouraging news last week that the Houston City Council has just adopted more protective building standards in the city’s flood-prone areas. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said it best:
“We’re going to be futuristic. We are not going to build looking back. We’re going to build looking forward.”
That’s a goal our nation must aspire toward, especially as climate projections show an increasing risk of many types of disasters.