Box 1: EESI's Focus on Resilience

EESI has made resilience a core aspect of its work, in particular through a briefing series, Building Secure and Resilient Infrastructure. We’ve also reached out directly to federal agencies as well as Congressional offices and committees to share our recommendations. In addition to our feedback on FEMA's National Mitigation Investment Strategy (see box 2) and to our press release (see main article), EESI convened a diverse group of stakeholders who found common ground in supporting more federal investment in pre-disaster mitigation and rebuilding for enhanced resilience to future disasters. A number of these groups joined together in a letter to Senate leadership in support of the pre-disaster mitigation provisions of the Disaster Recovery Reform Act.

EESI will continue to promote disaster preparedness and resilience in concert with environmental sustainability, with additional briefings in our Building Secure and Resilient Infrastructure series and continued Congressional outreach.

In this era of political partisanship and gridlock in the nation's capital, there is a major bipartisan bright spot, with a consensus on how to improve the U.S. disaster response system. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and both chambers of Congress are taking action to ensure greater investment in mitigation strategies before and after disasters to make buildings, infrastructure and communities more resilient to the impacts of extreme weather and other catastrophic events. With more upfront investment in resilience, the federal government would save enormous sums of money currently spent on disaster recovery, while protecting lives and private property.


Congress Embraces Resilience

Policymakers on both sides of the aisle, including deficit hawks, are embracing the concepts of resilience and pre-disaster mitigation (PDM) to protect people, property, public infrastructure, natural assets, and critical systems like the electricity grid from extreme weather and other hazards. Several major bills currently moving through Congress contain resilience provisions, including the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019 (H.R. 5515), Water Resources Development Act of 2018 (H.R. 8) and FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 (H.R. 4). The FAA bill, which passed the House on April 27, includes the Disaster Recovery Reform Act or DRRA (H.R. 4460) and the PREPARE Act (H.R. 4177).

The DRRA provisions of the FAA bill would increase investments for pre-disaster mitigation, help communities adopt and enforce the latest model building codes after disasters, and allow state and local governments to administer housing assistance grants. The PREPARE Act provisions would establish government-wide goals and implement priorities for extreme weather resilience, facilitate state and local extreme weather resilience actions, and support regional, state, and local governments developing resilience strategies. EESI issued a press release applauding both the DRRA and PREPARE Act provisions.

On June 13, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs approved its own version of the Disaster Recovery Reform Act (S. 3041). Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI) noted the legislation reflects many of the priorities that FEMA Administrator Brock Long discussed in testimony before the committee “based on what he saw” shortly after the multiple natural disasters of 2017. To avoid similar loss and destruction in the future, Long recommended greater investment in pre-disaster mitigation (PDM). While disaster relief would still be a core function of FEMA, more PDM assistance will enable individuals and communities to prevent or minimize the worst impacts of natural and other hazards.


FEMA Emphasizes Pre-disaster Mitigation

FEMA has a new strategic plan that emphasizes pre-disaster mitigation and shared responsibility for disaster preparedness.

In 2017, the United States experienced 16 natural disasters that cost hundreds and potentially thousands of lives and more than $309 billion. Back-to-back hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, as well as wildfires and mudslides in California, together presented the biggest challenge for FEMA since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The devastation overwhelmed emergency responders. In its 2018 strategic plan and draft National Mitigation Investment Strategy, the focus is on pre-disaster mitigation with the goal of preventing natural hazards from becoming deadly and costly disasters.

In its 2018-2022 Strategic Plan, FEMA describes its pre-disaster strategies to mitigate the impact of natural hazards and urges state and local governments and the private sector to take on more responsibility and investment in disaster preparations. The Plan establishes a framework of three goals to better prepare and respond to natural disasters. (A big question is whether FEMA will, in fact, be able to direct more resources to pre-disaster mitigation. The passage of the Disaster Recovery Reform Act may help answer that question.)


Box 2: A National Mitigation Investment Strategy

In early 2018, FEMA released the draft National Mitigation Investment Strategy and invited public comments. It plans to deliver the final strategy by fall 2018. The strategy provides recommendations on how to mitigate the impacts of natural disasters and increase investments in mitigation across federal government, state, territorial, tribal, and local governments, the private sector, and the nonprofit sector. It proposes that a whole-community approach is necessary for pre-disaster mitigation, which is in alignment with the theme of the 2018-2022 Strategic Plan. At a George Washington University event, Kaniewski emphasized the important role of the private sector. Companies, such as oil, gas, and telecommunication firms, are important partners in addressing critical infrastructure and can mitigate the impacts of disasters. “We still talk about the three-legged stool, which includes federal, state, and local governments. It is actually a four-legged stool. The private sector helps us,” Kaniewski said.

In its comments to FEMA's draft mitigation investment strategy, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) emphasized that it is important for the federal government to lead by example, by following best practices for its own buildings and infrastructure and by disseminating the data and lessons learned. All stakeholders have a role in disaster preparation and mitigation, but EESI noted that state and local governments cannot carry the burden alone.

FEMA Goal 1: Build a Culture of Preparedness

In a speech last month at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, Daniel Kaniewski, the agency’s deputy administrator for resilience, said FEMA wants to foster a “culture of preparedness.” FEMA is “not a first responder,” he said, and cannot manage and lead emergency response efforts for every single disaster. Instead, FEMA wants to help state and local governments build their expertise and capacity so that at some point they will be able to manage a recovery program on their own. “FEMA would simply be providing financial support, rather than administrative and personnel support,” he said.

The first goal of FEMA’s new strategic plan stresses the idea that individuals are the first responders to disasters and so everyone should be prepared for them. Achieving this goal requires effective pre-disaster mitigation actions, including understanding and analyzing local risks, addressing choices that reflect diverse needs, insuring against risks, and incentivizing investment in pre-disaster mitigation. These actions are expected to mitigate the impacts of disasters and reduce the loss of money, property, and life.

FEMA’s role in individual mitigation is to empower people with lifesaving skills and encourage them to obtain insurance. FEMA will continue to provide training and exercises to people, helping them master necessary skills to deal with incidents, such as house fires, tornadoes, and hurricanes. In addition, FEMA points out that individuals with insurance recover faster and more fully from disasters. “For people who lacked flood insurance and received FEMA assistance, the average payout on their claim was $4,000. For those who had flood insurance, the average was $110,000,” according to Kaniewski.

Another element under the first goal is to encourage investment in pre-disaster mitigation. The plan notes that “disaster resilience starts with building codes” and FEMA encourages more robust code enforcement and up-to-date code adoption. Kaniewski explained the agency’s focus on mitigation efforts by quoting a finding from the National Institute of Building Sciences’ Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves—2017 Interim Report: the report notes that $1 spent on hazard mitigation can save $6 in future disaster costs.

FEMA supports this theory of investment through its mitigation grant programs:

  1. The Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program, authorized by Section 203 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, is “designed to assist States, U.S. Territories, Federally-recognized tribes, and local communities in implementing a sustained pre-disaster natural hazard mitigation program. The goal is to reduce overall risk to the population and structures from future hazard events, while also reducing reliance on Federal funding in future disasters.”
  2. The Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) helps communities “rebuild stronger” after a disaster. Under HMGP, FEMA, in partnership with states, makes funding available to local governments and certain other organizations to undertake projects designed to lessen the risk of damage from disasters.


FEMA Goal 2: Ready the Nation for Catastrophic Disasters

FEMA's second goal focuses on the collective responsibilities and actions of the federal government, state, local, tribal, and territorial governments (SLTT), as well as the private sector. The idea is that if all these actors are better prepared for disasters, FEMA will be able to focus its resources on the truly catastrophic disasters, “difficult and life-changing events” that seriously affect citizens, infrastructure, environment, and government functions (examples of such events include Hurricanes Harvey and Maria). Currently, FEMA resources are spread too thin, which slows the response to catastrophic disasters. For instance, FEMA's workforce was already deployed in more than 30 disaster areas when Hurricane Harvey struck Texas.

“If we prepare our nation, citizens, communities, state and local governments to be better prepared under Goal 1,” Kaniewski said during the GWU event, “FEMA should be able to focus its efforts on the truly catastrophic disasters.” To be ready for such disasters, the strategic plan suggests enhancing FEMA's workforce capability and scalability, providing enhanced assistance to SLTT governments, securing sufficient life-saving supplies, and improving communication among different levels of governments.

For the non-catastrophic or smaller disasters, Kaniewski noted that “FEMA will continue to fund the recovery of smaller disasters,” but it will “look for state and local governments to manage those programs.” As an example, he mentioned Texas’s short-term housing program for Hurricane Harvey victims: “It allows the state to administer innovative housing solutions appropriate for their state and local governments with full FEMA support.”

Both the strategic plan and Kaniewski’s speech reiterate a new model for disaster recovery programs, which is “federally supported, state managed, and locally executed.” This echoes what the federal government has said for a long time, that recovery programs should be locally-driven and FEMA cannot lead recovery efforts for every disaster.


FEMA Goal 3: Reduce the Complexity of FEMA

Kaniewski noted the first lesson learned from previous disasters was that FEMA should “provide sustained logistical support for weeks and months” following disasters. He also noted that “in some cases, there are not one, but two, or three, or four inspectors visiting a residence from FEMA and from other federal agencies. This delays assistance and doesn’t make sense.” One way to solve this situation is to streamline FEMA’s assistance program by re-designing the housing assessment process and reducing the number of housing inspections. In addition, the plan stresses the need to improve the National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF), which builds a coordinating structure and identifies the roles and responsibilities of different levels of governments and governmental agencies in promoting effective disaster recovery. To improve the framework, SLTT governments should integrate the NDRF into their pre-disaster plans and learn from other stakeholders.


Whether the “federally supported, state managed, and locally executed” model will work remains a question. Months after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, victims in Texas and Florida were still waiting for FEMA’s assistance. And in Puerto Rico, aid arrived even more slowly, with multiple important federal contracts being cancelled, causing long delays in the delivery of temporary roofs and food to survivors.

There is still much work to be done: many stakeholders are concerned that FEMA is under-resourced and understaffed and, therefore, not able to develop policies and procedures in time; state governments are not familiar with FEMA’s procedures; and local governments don’t have access to the information they need. Others would like to see wider access to FEMA’s mitigation grants. This could be addressed by two key provisions in the Disaster Recovery Reform Act: a set-aside fund to invest in public infrastructure pre-disaster mitigation and expanded funding eligibility for communities to update and enforce their building codes.


Author: Jieyi Lu

Editor: Ellen Vaughan