In the Wake of COVID-19, Congress Must Support Pre-Disaster Mitigation Programs

April 29, 2020 | 5:55 pm
FEMA/Kenneth Wilsey
Shana Udvardy
Senior Climate Resilience Policy Analyst

COVID-19, the virus that has become part of our daily lexicon and lives, is affecting us well into the spring and for the foreseeable future. At the same time, some parts of the U.S. are now experiencing flood warnings and flood disaster declarations, and extreme heat conditions.

The COVID-19 crisis is compounding risks for U.S. communities still contending with past extreme weather and climate-related disasters and bracing for future disasters. The recovery could likely be compounded by a string of extreme weather events starting this spring, continuing towards the end of summer when wildfire season peaks along with extreme heat and drought conditions,  lasting well into the fall through the end of hurricane season.

The extreme weather events will stretch federal resources to even a greater degree, causing further suffering for the American people, native American communities and US territories. While FEMA and other federal agencies are working around the clock to get resources to communities across the nation, the Trump Administration’s failure and lack of a science-based plan will only cause further suffering.

As Congress considers formulating economic recovery and relief packages for the nation, robust funding must be targeted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) pre-disaster mitigation programs to help prepare and protect communities ahead of time, particularly African American, Latinx and Native American communities that are suffering the brunt of the pandemic in this dire time.

2019 is the fifth consecutive year (2015-2019) in which 10 or more billion-dollar weather and climate disaster events have impacted the United States. NOAA

2020 Brings the US Multiple Compounding Risks

2019 was another historic year for billion-dollar weather and climate-related disasters, with costs estimated at $45 billion, and of that, costs for flooding estimated at $20 billion.  As a nation, we n


eed to do much more to help prepare and protect communities ahead of time, particularly those non-white, environmental justice communities — African Americans, Latinx, and Native Americans — that lack health insurance, are two to three times more likely to be among the working poor and have been devastated by COVID-19 and extreme weather disasters. In this blog,  Dr. Sacoby Wilson, associate professor of public health at the University of Maryland, recommended how we need to learn from past disasters:

“We need transformative, new thinking about how we build our built environment.” And “we focus too much on the Haves and not enough on the Have Nots. We focus too much of those who have a voice and not enough people who do not. We need to invest in those communities more when it comes to preparedness.”

NOAA’s seven-day, daily maximum heat forecast projects record heat of 105°F and 110°F in Texas, and 95°F and 100°F  days throughout the Southwest and the Southeast. Thankfully, the worst end of the flood projections in NOAA’s latest spring outlook did not come to fruition. However, many rivers in the U.S. are experiencing flow conditions that are above flood stage, including the Red River of the North in North Dakota (where the governor has declared a statewide flood emergency), the James River in South Dakota, places along the Upper and lower Mississippi Rivers as well as along rivers in Eastern Texas and the Southeastern states.

High water on the James River in South Dakota has persisted for more than a year. April 1, 2020

As we live through the COVID-19 pandemic, the risks of flooding and extreme heat, among other hazards, are raising concerns among some members of Congress on how ready FEMA will be if and when such disasters do collide for their constituents.

Even without considering compound climate hazards, all states, territories and tribal nations are grappling with COVID-19 cases, which has strained state and local government budgets. The budget shortfalls will stress the provision of community lifeline services, those essential services such as food and shelter or energy to turn the lights on.

As a result, some pre-disaster mitigation projects are already on the cutting block. Even large cities like San Francisco, Miami Beach and New York City are delaying climate change mitigation projects. The resilience officers in these cities understand the risks ahead and moving forward, they stressed the need for federal infrastructure funds for large-scale resilience projects to help increase preparedness, add jobs and help restart the economy.

By funding three federal programs as part of our nation’s economic recovery efforts, Congress can ensure resources are going to communities most in need to help them mitigate these compounding risks.

Congress should invest in these three pre-disaster mitigation programs to help environmental justice and low-middle income communities be better prepared to the next extreme weather event, create jobs, and help the economy in the path to recovery.

1) FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) Program

Congress should substantially increase funding for FEMA’s pre-disaster hazard mitigation assistance grants, including the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) Program, and target resources specifically to Tribes, low-income and otherwise disadvantaged communities. Congress must consider how to make this level of pre-disaster mitigation funding predictable, efficient and timely. Increased funding is also needed to expand FEMA’s staffing and technical capabilities to better position it to address compound hazards. 

After back-to-back years of devastating extreme weather and climate related events, the enactment of the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018 (DRRA) in 2018 was broadly celebrated as a huge step in the right direction to provide a dedicated pot of funds for pre-disaster mitigation and to stem the tide of burgeoning costs of natural disasters. The DRRA authorized the president to set aside six percent of estimated disaster grant expenses from the Disaster Resilience Fund (where appropriations for all Presidential Declared Disasters sit).

Shortly afterwards, FEMA established the new BRIC program to guide and administer these pre-disaster mitigation funds. The agency anticipates opening the grant application process in the fall of 2020. The BRIC program is intended to replace the FEMA Pre-Disaster Mitigation grant program as it will foster similar national preparedness efforts. FEMA must target or set-aside funds for Tribes and other historically disadvantaged communities with fewer resources  for building climate resilience and for strategic planning of stakeholder-driven relocation efforts in places that are especially exposed to risk.

While all states, territories and the District of Columbia have Presidential Disaster Declarations (PDD) for the COVID-19 crisis, the funding obligations under the BRIC program won’t be known for some time. Congress must ensure these funds are allocated and protected for pre-disaster mitigation efforts because extreme weather and climate-related disasters won’t stop for the coronavirus pandemic.

In the interim, Congress must consider how to make this level pre-disaster mitigation funding a predictable flow of funding and how to facilitate the release of the funds in a more time efficient manner.

Additionally, it’s critical that we avoid missteps seen in the past when it comes to how the Administration releases these funds. The example of the requirements and restrictions that the Administration placed on the aid to Puerto Rico added salt to the already deep wounds the natural disasters caused. Congress must continue to provide a watchful eye to ensure that poorly thought out requirements are not included in future aid packages. Follow this link to read more about this issue as it relates to Puerto Rico.

2) FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA) Grant Program

Congress should substantially increase funding for FEMA pre-disaster hazard mitigation assistance grants under the Flood Mitigation Assistance Grant Program, and target resources specifically to Tribes, low-income and otherwise disadvantaged communities. Congress should consider how to better fund this grant program given the benefits of acquiring and demolishing buildings exposed to riverine flooding outweigh the costs 7 to 1, totaling $82 billion in savings.

In fiscal year (FY) 2020, FEMA allocated $160 million for FMA grants for planning, projects and technical assistance activities and is focused on mitigating repetitive loss (RL) properties and severe repetitive loss (SRL) properties. FMA grants are geared towards helping communities reduce flood risk and damage to buildings and structures insured by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) with the goal of ultimately reducing insurance claims and debt to the federal treasury (currently at roughly at $20.5 billion).

FMA funds for advance assistance allow communities to develop mitigation strategies and community flood mitigation projects, which include protecting infrastructure, stormwater management and floodplain and stream restoration, among other measures. FMA funds for planning can be use by grantees to develop and adopt hazard mitigation plans, required by FEMA. While the primary concern on people’s minds is to stay safe and healthy as the pandemic plays out, the unfortunate reality is that we need to understand and plan for storms and heatwaves (among other risks) to protect our families and communities. The FMA funds provide assistance to help people prepare for these types of events. For FY20, FEMA anticipates to award 120 grants under FMA.

3)  HUD’s Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) and Community Development Block Grant Mitigation (CDBG–MIT) programs

Congress should increase by 10-fold the fiscal year 2019 CDBG appropriation of $3.36 billion to $33.6 billion and provide $30 billion in stimulus funding for the CDBG-MIT program. Congress must also move ahead to pass legislation to permanently authorize HUD’s CDBG program.

HUD’s CDBG-DR program has played a role in disaster recovery since 1993. Funds can be used for a broad range of activities as long as they benefit low- and moderate- income people, help prevent or eliminate slums or blight, or address urgent risks that threaten the health and wealth of the community. What makes HUD’s CDBG-DR program different from some of the other federal pre-disaster mitigation grant programs is that grantees must use at least 70% of the funds for activities that benefit low-to moderate-income communities.

After Hurricane Irene, for example, the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development utilized CDBG-DR funding to help leverage FEMA funds for the buyout program with $6 million for purchasing properties and $750,000 for site improvements and project administration.

Last summer, HUD provided guidance on how grantees can utilize the almost $16 billion available under the new CDBG-DR mitigation program, marking the first time HUD allocated funding solely for mitigating the impacts of future disasters.

As important as these HUD programs are, an underlying issue remains regarding how long HUD takes to get funds to people on the ground. The good news is there’s legislation in both chambers of Congress (H.R. 3702 and S. 2301) to permanently codify the CDBG-DR program, which will make the program more consistent and efficient and help to speed up the recovery process.

The Bottom line: FEMA and HUD mitigation programs can help move the nation beyond the “penny-wise and pound foolish” expenditures when it comes to disaster resilience. And at a time of great uncertainty, it is even more crucial for Congress to be wise about protecting the nation.

Federal expenditures will continue to grow if the federal government continues to fail to reduce the federal fiscal exposure from climate change by investing in climate resilience and carbon emissions reduction. The Fourth National Climate Assessment estimated that by the end of the century, annual losses from climate change-related impacts in some sectors could exceed $100 billion, surpassing the gross domestic product of many states.

The National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) recently released new analysis in its “Natural Hazards Mitigation Saves 2019 Report”, providing even more evidence that federal investments in hazard mitigation measures are cost effective and can have large returns on investment. Every dollar Congress invests in mitigation grant programs will result in $6 in benefits. The data also indicate that every state in the nation is estimated to experience $10 million in benefits from federal grants to mitigate flooding, windstorms, earthquake, or fire and the majority of states experience at least $1 billion in benefits.

As federal investments in hazard mitigation continues to prove to be cost effective, it’s critical that Congress defend these measures that also save lives, lower impacts on the health and wealth of communities, and create much-needed jobs.