A Priority List for Trump’s New FEMA Chief

June 19, 2017 | 3:35 pm
Shana Udvardy
Senior Climate Resilience Policy Analyst

Tomorrow morning Congress is expected to confirm the new Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator, Brock Long, who will serve as the principal advisor on emergency management under President Trump and John F. Kelly, the newly appointed Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.* In my previous blog, I mentioned 5 reasons why this was welcome news.

Once Mr. Long is in place, here’s a priority list to ensure he hits the ground running.

#1 Commit to Incorporating the Latest Climate Change and Future Conditions into All of FEMA’s Actions

Losses from natural disasters (hurricanes, wildfires, flooding, earthquakes, etc.) are on the rise due to growing populations and urban development in high hazard areas, as well as climate change which is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.  Thanks to NOAA, we know that in the first quarter of 2017, the U.S. has had 5 weather and climate disasters with over $1 billion in damages, while 2016 had 15 “billion-dollar” natural disaster events (each event either reached or exceeded $1 billion in losses) and was a record year for inland flooding disasters.

While President Trump has signaled to the world his disregard for science, climate change and making our  planet a cleaner and safer place by pulling out of the Paris Agreement on June 1, there is still a lot of work that our federal agencies can do to reduce the impacts of natural disasters, including those worsened by climate change.

  • At the national level, Mr. Long should implement the Technical Mapping Advisory Committee’s (TMAC) Future Conditions Risk Assessment and Modeling recommendations to FEMA on how to utilize and incorporate the best available climate science and methodology to assess possible future flood risk. Mr. Long must also defend FEMA’s budget to Congress to make this possible.
  • At the state level, Mr. Long ought to play a leadership role to ensure that states comply with FEMA’s policy to update their State Hazard Mitigation Plans (SHMP’s) to consider future conditions, including the projected effects of climate change, in addition to substantially improving these plans. States must update their hazard mitigation plans every 5 years to be eligible to receive federal funding for pre-disaster mitigation (PDM). Recent reviews of the quality of these plans (here and here) find that most states need to substantially improve their plans, particularly land- locked states. FEMA is responsible for providing both “technical assistance and reviewing state activities, plans and programs  to ensure mitigation commitments are fulfilled” and does so on an annual basis (for more information see State Mitigation Plan Review Guide).Mr. Long should work with FEMA staff to encourage states to substantially improve their SHMPs which will help to better coordinate state level hazard mitigation actions and safeguard communities.
  • At the community level, Mr. Long can continue FEMA’s leadership on promoting community resilience through building on and expanding upon FEMA’s smart climate adaptation efforts like using flood-resilient design building codes, maintaining natural and beneficial functions of floodplains, investing in more resilient infrastructure, engaging in mitigation planning and strategies to increase community resilience, and including environmental analysis in the Benefit-Cost Analysis (BCA) Tool when considering mitigation activities.

#2 Defend FEMA’s budget

Jamestown,CO, October 9,2013–Deane Criswell,FEMA Deputy FCO, and Dan Alexander, FEMA Region 8 Deputy Regional Coordinator look at map which shows the course of the flood waters in and around the Jamestown, CO area. FEMA is working with local, state, volunteer and other federal agencies to provide assistance to residents affected by flooding. Photo by Patsy Lynch/FEMA

Mr. Long should defend FEMA’s budget and champion the need for robust funding for FEMA’s PDM grant program as well as flood risk mapping. The Trump administration’s FY18 budget proposal would obliterate both programs. As my colleague said in her blog, these cuts would seriously undermine our nation’s ability to prepare for and recover from disasters, and put the safety of Americans at risk.

It remains a concern as to whether Mr. Long will adequately defend the FEMA Budget.

During the June 7 Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, Senator McCaskill (MO) spoke to the impacts of the recent flooding on many counties in Missouri and then asked Mr. Long whether he “was concerned about the $600 million cut in FEMA’s budget?”  Long replied to say that he supports the President’s budget. However, he also said he would work with FEMA to make sure the agency can meet its needs.

While Mr. Long’s remarks may leave an impression that he will have an open dialog on what those needs may be, families and communities and a broad range of sectors will want a more definitive answer that he will be defend FEMA’s budget, particularly the mapping and pre-disaster mitigation programs.  Funds in the pre-disaster mitigation program can, for example, go toward helping communities implement buyout programs of houses that have been repeatedly flooded in high risk areas and leaving the area as permanent open space, reducing future costs.

The Pre-disaster Mitigation (PDM) Grant Program, authorized under the Stafford Act, is vital to communities and state and local governments as it provides them with funding to implement measures before a disaster strikes instead of afterwards.  A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study found that the majority of grants and funds go towards flood-risk mitigation measures (vs. planning or other risks such as earthquakes, wind, etc.) and that investing in mitigation before a disaster event helps to reduce future losses. Under President Trump’s budget proposal, this program would be funded at $39,016,000, a 61% cut compared to the FY17 continuing resolution levels.

What is particularly disheartening about this budget cut is that the PDM grant program is already underfunded as more communities apply for funding than can be funded under the allocated amounts.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that post disaster assistance can be a reactionary and fragmented approach and from fiscal years 2011-2014, FEMA allocated a whopping $3.2 billion for post disaster hazard mitigation under the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) and approximately $222 million for the PDM grant program.   A more recent review of pre and post disaster funding by Kousky and Shabman finds that almost 90% of FEMA funding on flood risk reduction comes in the aftermath of a big flood and recommends the need for an increase in funding for pre-flood risk reduction program budgets.

Mr. Long should also make the case for investing in flood hazard mapping and risk analysis program which the Trump Administration’s FY 18 Budget proposal zeros out. Accurate flood risk maps are vital for communities to assess their risks and take action to reduce them. For FY 2017, Congress appropriated $178 million for flood mapping compared to the $400 million per year that was authorized in 2012 by the Biggert-Waters legislation. The Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM) in their Flood Mapping for the Nation report estimated the cost of remaining unmet mapping needs to range between $4.5 billion – $7.5 billion and a spending level of $400 million per year, FEMA could update the maps in 10-11 years.

 #3 Champion existing pre-disaster mitigation policies and robust coordination across federal agencies and state, local and tribal governments: FEMA’s coordination role is a critical one.

Belle Harbor, N.Y., Aug. 17, 2015– John Covell, NY Sandy Recovery Office Director (3rd from left) and NYC DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg (2nd from right), inspect the sand dune and baffle walls built to protect the neighborhood from future storms. They were there with local politicians and neighborhood groups for the groundbreaking ceremony of the FEMA funded Street Reconstruction project that will address damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. K.C.Wilsey/FEMA

Mr. Long should champion commonsense pre-disaster mitigation strategies and collaborations that are already underway by:

  • Ensuring the common sense Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (FFRMS) that requires all federally funded infrastructure (such as hospitals, roads, transit systems) in flood-prone areas be constructed to better withstand the impacts of flooding moves forward. A Pew poll found that of the Americans polled, a whopping 82% support such a requirement for the construction of new infrastructure, as well as for repairing and rebuilding structures damaged by flooding. This support shouldn’t really be such a surprise as it aligns well with what states and local governments are already doing; here’s a list of participating communities by state.
  • Move rulemaking on the Public Assistance (PA) Deductible swiftly forward to give states incentives to increase their investments in resilience to natural disasters and to reduce the burden on federal taxpayers after a natural disaster. The PA program provides funding for local, state, and tribal governments to help communities recover from major disasters. We provided extensive comments in support of and to strengthen FEMA’s proposal for such a deductible. The reason this policy is innovative is that it gives states the option to reduce their deductible through credits earned for qualifying statewide mitigation measures that increase resilience and ultimately lower the costs of future disasters.
  • Further FEMA’s progress in concert with the federal inter-agency Mitigation Flood Leadership Advisory Group (MitFLG) on a National Mitigation Investment Strategy (NMIS). After Hurricane Sandy, the GAO in their 2015 report identified a need for a coordinated, federal government-wide investment strategy for resilience and mitigation that reduces the nation’s exposure to future losses from disasters. The NMIS is a great opportunity to help the federal family plan and justify budgets and resources that invest in mitigation measures before a disaster happens.

#4 Advocate for substantial NFIP reform to increase climate resilience and safeguard communities

This is a busy time for Congress as each side of the aisle is working on how best to reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) before its expiration in September, 2017.  Congressional leaders are working in both the House (see House Financial Services Committee Memorandum that includes 7 different draft bills and that would reauthorize NFIP for 5 years) and the  Senate (see the “SAFE NFIP Act” 2017 that would reauthorize NFIP for 6 years and the Cassidy-Gillibrand (FIAS Act) 2017 that would reauthorize NFIP for 10 years).

Previous NFIP reforms occurred in 2014, 2012, and 2004 and yet many fixes and improvements are very much needed.

Mr. Long must play a leadership role to help Congressional leaders draft a NFIP reauthorization bill that is substantially improved to increase climate resilience and safeguard communities.

Time to hit the ground running…

We are hopeful that Mr. Long will commit to strong leadership on these funding and policy initiatives and that he will demonstrate results.  As Hurricane season is in full swing and as the costs of more frequent and intense natural disaster events grow, we look forward to working with Mr. Long to moving this priority list forward, checking each of the “to do” boxes and ultimately creating a more climate-ready, resilient nation.

* Originally scheduled for this evening, the confirmation vote on the nomination of Brock Long to be the FEMA Administrator has been postponed due to inclement weather and will now occur at 11:00 am on Tuesday, June 20, 2017.