Looking back on the disasters of 2017 and 2018, the view is grim. From the California wildfires to Hurricane Maria—the deadliest national disaster in the United States since 1900—large swaths of the country felt the fury of nature. Clearly, the impacts of climate change are “here and now,” and causing untold suffering and costs to the American taxpayer. Not only does the suffering caused by these disasters weigh heavily on Americans, but the effects of the estimated $312.7 billion in damages caused by the 2017 disasters alone will be felt across the nation for years to come.
Moving forward, the only emergency preparedness measure we can’t afford to take is that of inaction. With eight of the ten costliest American hurricanes having occurred since 2005, and 14 of the 20 largest wildfires in recorded California history having happened since 2003, the costs and risks of extreme weather are only compounding as time goes on. Since 1980, 238 weather and climate-related disasters have met or exceeded the $1 billion mark (adjusted for inflation), totaling more than $1.5 trillion in damage. A fifth of that total damage occurred in 2017, underlining how extreme weather is becoming more frequent and dangerous because of climate change.
Investing in resilience is a cost-effective, immediately available solution. Studies by the National Institute of Building Sciences indicate that every $1 invested in resilience saves $4 to $11 in future disaster costs. Increasingly aware of these considerable benefits, and following the disastrous 2017 events, the past Congress passed several bipartisan measures that will help make America more resilient to extreme weather.
The legislation passed by the 115th Congress (2017-2019) with perhaps the most direct aim at increasing resilience was the Disaster Recovery Reform Act (DRRA), passed as part of the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act. This act will allow for more grants to be awarded specifically for pre-disaster mitigation. Included among those measures is mitigation assistance for wildfires, windstorms, floods, and earthquakes. DRRA seeks to ensure investments in disaster proofing—such as better building code implementation and enforcement—are made before extreme events occur.
In October, President Trump signed America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 (AWIA), containing $6 billion in authorizations towards modernizing and maintaining drinking water systems, dams, reservoirs, levees, and ports. This is a start but, due to a lack of regular Congressional appropriations, the Corps has a project backlog estimated to be as much as $100 billion.
An especially significant portion of the AWIA is the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which provides authorization for the Army Corps of Engineers; the Corps oversees the maintenance of a third of all U.S. waterways, and ensures development and maintenance of critical water infrastructure including ports, inland waterways, bridges, dams and flood control. AWIA continues a years-long trend of Congress calling for the agency to use nature-based solutions when appropriate.
AWIA also contained several important authorizations for drinking water projects, which will develop and update clean drinking water systems across the country—something the American Society of Civil Engineers labels as critical. According to the group, it would cost $1 trillion to return drinking water systems to a level of good repair in the next 25 years.
In many cases, the most cost-effective disaster mitigation measures are “nature-based” solutions—restoring and preserving natural systems already in place, or mimicking nature in built solutions. As just one example, coastal wetlands in New Jersey helped avoid an estimated $625 million in additional damage from Superstorm Sandy; these natural buffers are crucial aspects of our overall resilience.
Whether it’s building soil health or managing wildfire risk in federal forests, nature-based solutions were incorporated into many pieces of legislation passed in the 115th Congress. The Army Corps of Engineers was directed to continue using nature-based solutions in the Water Resources Development Act, steps to better manage wildfire risk were included in the 2018 omnibus spending bill (Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018), and a pilot program was created for soil health in the 2018 Farm Bill.
The John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2019, which was passed and signed into law with strong bipartisan support, also contained several measures relating to infrastructure resilience. Those measures included sections that expanded the Department of Defense’s authority to assess its own energy resilience, bolstered flood mitigation requirements for future construction projects, and amended the General Building Requirements to require federal climate data be included in any future construction plans. Complementary to those developments, a 10-year Defense Community Infrastructure Pilot Program was established to enable the Department to issue funding for state and local government projects that would enhance the quality and resiliency of nearby military facilities.
Transportation-related measures were also featured in the 2018 Omnibus. These included requiring the Federal Highway Administration to submit recommendations for cost-effective resilience improvements, grow its educational practices in coastal states, and more closely consider resilient infrastructure practices and integrations. The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 contained multiple sections that order the Federal Aviation Administration to critically assess its overall emergency preparedness and resiliency.
While Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are making efforts to make our nation more resilient, there is still much more to be done. Efforts are needed in all departments and agencies, and across all sectors, if we want to harden our nation against extreme weather and other national disasters.
The most obvious first step is to appropriate funding for already authorized projects including the newly passed DRRA, NDAA, and WRDA. Another critical issue is to enact much needed reforms and reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program, to ensure the program is financially solvent, properly managing flood risk, as well as serving vulnerable communities already living in floodplains. And, energy legislation that addresses America’s aging energy grid is another important item for the new Congress. In addition to protecting grid infrastructure assets from physical and cyber hazards, modernization strategies such as “smart” (internet-connected) technologies and distributed energy resources are also being considered. Building-integrated and community-scale energy efficiency, renewable energy projects, energy storage technologies, and microgrids offer new opportunities to improve grid reliability and community resilience.
Author: C.J. Greco