Building a Culture of Preparedness at FEMA

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Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released a new strategic plan to guide the agency from 2018 through 2022. The plan outlines three goals: reducing the complexity of the agency, readying the nation for catastrophic disaster, and building a culture of preparedness. The strategic goals will be driven by twelve supporting strategic objectives meant to “highlight meaningful ways the Agency can focus on its workforce, simplify processes and procedures across FEMA, provide enhanced stewardship of funds, and better engage and support survivors.” This new plan comes in the wake of sixteen weather and climate events in the nation in 2017 alone, which resulted in 362 deaths and came at a record-breaking cost of $306 billion.

As FEMA notes in the plan, “the most effective form of emergency management is one in which every member of the community understands his or her important and indispensable role,” and “the ability of the Nation to be truly ready depends on everyone knowing and understanding the part they play in our collective resilience.” The plan was developed through multiple engagement platforms, including in-person feedback in sessions held for FEMA employees across the nation; webinars with external partners, including state, local, and tribal, and territorial officials; and an online idea management forum to gather comments, recommendations, and ideas.

Several of the plan’s strategic objectives mirror ASCE’s flood risk management priorities, including the need to establish a common definition and consistent means of assessing risk; implementing effective collaboration and clear communications across all levels of government, the private sector, and the public; and establishing long-term, reliable funding mechanisms for risk reduction measures at the federal, state, and local levels, including pre-disaster mitigation measures and the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Earlier this month, ASCE sent a letter to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriation urging them to fully fund several existing federal infrastructure programs, including the NFIP, the High Hazard Potential Dam Rehabilitation Program, the National Dam Safety Program, and the National Levee Safety Initiative – all of which provide critical flood risk reduction across the nation.

The importance of pre-disaster mitigation cannot be stressed enough. In fact, a January 2018 National Institute of Building Sciences report found that every $1 in federal government agency hazard mitigation spending saves the nation $6 in future disaster costs. Congress seems to have heard this message loud and clear, because last week’s Fiscal Year 2018 omnibus spending package contained $249.2 million for FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) Grant Program, which is nearly $150 million more than the FY17 enacted level. The PDM program, which is authorized in the Stafford Act and is awarded on a competitive basis, provides planning and project grants to state, local, tribal, and territorial governments who want to reduce their risk to future hazard events.

FEMA’s strategic plan seeks to close the insurance gap by helping individuals and businesses understand the amount of coverage they need to be adequately insured. The NFIP is the nation’s primary source of flood insurance, yet a recent study in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that FEMA’s flood maps, which cover less than 60 percent of the country, are so outdated and/or miscalculated that nearly 41 million Americans – or three times the number of people covered under current estimates – live in areas vulnerable to a 100 year flood. Furthermore, the amount of property at risk is more than double the federal estimate. While President Trump’s FY19 Budget Request included a meager $100 million for FEMA’s flood mapping and risk analysis program, a nearly 43 percent cut compared to the FY17 enacted level of $178 million, last week’s omnibus funded the program at $262.5 million – a 47 percent increase from the FY17 enacted level.

It’s worth noting, however, that FEMA’s new strategic plan eliminates any references to climate change. For example, in a section labeled “Emerging Threats,” it cites cybersecurity and terrorism but fails to mention rising sea levels, extreme weather events, or any other term related to the potential impacts of climate change.

Earlier that same week, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the National League of Cities released a Flood-Ready Infrastructure Statement of Principles that include improved building requirements, enhanced use of natural defenses, and reduced unsustainable development in risky areas. More than 250 governors, state representatives, and mayors from across the country signed onto the principles, which also reflect many of ASCE’s flood risk management priorities.

As advocates for policies that reduce risk, protect the health of the public, and maximize the public interest – including cost considerations and resilient designs – ASCE has been supportive of efforts that achieve this goal, specifically the Obama-era Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (FFRMS) that was rescinded by President Trump through an Executive Order (EO) on August 15, 2017. As part of a larger coalition led by Pew, ASCE has been urging Congress and the Trump Administration to develop new flood risk management standards that would require any new federally funded infrastructure projects in a floodplain to consider and mitigate for flood disaster risk. Earlier this month, ASCE endorsed S. 1507, the State Flood Mitigation Revolving Fund Act, which was introduced by Senators Jack Reed (D-RI), John Kennedy (R-LA), and Bob Menendez (D-NJ). Based on the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds, this bill would create a new state revolving fund to provide low-interest loans to states for flood mitigation projects such as elevations and flood proofing of public buildings, businesses, and residences; improvements to stormwater management; assistance to local residents who wish to move out of harm’s way; or converting frequently flooded areas into open space amenities.

ASCE was pleased that the U.S. Department of House and Urban Development (HUD) recently announced that all post-2017 hurricane disaster relief funds they disburse to states for new infrastructure projects located in a floodplain will contain a requirement that they be built to a higher elevation than the 100-year floodplain. States will also have to detail their efforts to account for sea-level rise. This flood risk management standard does not, however, change underlying HUD policy, and it is not yet clear if these requirements will apply to other federal agencies spending disaster relief funds.

The desire for stronger flood risk standards is nearly ubiquitous among the nation’s citizens; a recent poll conducted by the research firm Public Opinion Strategies found that a majority of voters (79 percent) across the political spectrum support policies aimed at reducing the risk posed by flood-related disasters, even those that may contain a price tag. With more than 50 percent of Americans living along a coast or in a floodplain – and as extreme weather events increase – it’s imperative that our nation invests in pre-disaster mitigation activities. ASCE is proud to lend a strong voice to these mitigation and resiliency efforts.

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