Congressional Committees Meet to Discuss Hurricane Ida Response

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As Congress continues to negotiate passage of President Biden’s agenda, multiple committees met this week to discuss the administration’s response to Hurricane Ida, which caused nearly 100 deaths and resulted in billions of dollars in damage from Louisiana up into the northeast.  On September 30, Congress passed a continuing resolution to extend government funded, but also provided $28.6 billion in relief funds for states impacted by recent natural disasters, including Ida.  While votes are not expected in the House this week, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Deanne Criswell appeared before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Tuesday to discuss the agency’s efforts to provide relief for states impacted by Ida.  The discussion also focused on ways in which the Federal Government is preparing for increasingly violent storms in the future.

In her testimony, Director Criswell recounted the devastating toll of Hurricane Ida, and strongly emphasized the importance of mitigation and resilience programs.  Criswell highlighted the need for “generational investments” in mitigation and resilience to reduce the impact of climate fueled disasters, noting a 2019 National Institute of Building Sciences Study indicating that every dollar invested in mitigation saves six dollars in future spending.  One program Criswell singled out was the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program, which was established in 2018 to support state and local governments in developing hazard mitigation projects which strengthen infrastructure in the face of increasingly strong weather events.  Criswell called BRIC a “cornerstone of [the agency’s] mitigation efforts”, and pointed to President Biden doubling the amount of funding available for the program for the 2021 Fiscal Year demonstrating the administration’s commitment to effective disaster mitigation.

Criswell answered several questions from committee members on a range of topics directly related to the administration’s response to Ida, as well as questions more broadly addressing hazard mitigation and preparedness.  Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), whose district includes parts of New York City that were heavily impacted by catastrophic flooding, raised questions about the resilience of existing infrastructure and mitigation tools for communities, citing the record rainfall and failure of storm water infrastructure in New York City, and the limited efficacy of existing flood maps.  Criswell, who served as Commissioner of New York City Emergency Management prior to joining the administration, underscored that the existing flood maps are an important tool, but do not account for storm water and sewer infrastructure and that action needed to be taken to strengthen such infrastructure.

Throughout the hearing, Director Criswell called for action to be taken to make the nation’s infrastructure more climate resilient.  She emphasized the need to prepare for future challenges, rather than responding to historical threats, and that climate resiliency and mitigation was essential.  Criswell urged the House to pass the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which includes significant funding for mitigation and resilience programs, including $55 billion to upgrade wastewater infrastructure, $1 billion for the BRIC program, more than $11 billion for flood resilience programs and $500 million for communities to fund resilience revolving loan funds to implement pre-disaster mitigation projects.

Similar topics were also discussed on Wednesday in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.  The committee hosted national and regional commanders from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to discuss the Corps’ response to Ida.  Like Criswell, officers testified about the improvements in readiness and better preparedness for Ida compared to Hurricane Katrina 15 years earlier.  Major General William “Butch” Graham, Deputy Commanding General for Civil and Emergency Operations, hailed the federal investments made in the Greater New Orleans Hurricane & Storm Damage Risk Reduction System, which funded construction and improvements for over 100 miles of levees, flood walls, and flood gates following Katrina.  General Graham noted that the system worked exactly as it was intended and prevented a disaster on the level of Katrina.

Much like the House Oversight hearing, several Senators posed questions related to the need to adapt to the effects of climate change.  Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) questioned the officers on what the Corps was doing to prepare for new risk factors such as increased rainfall in short periods of time and more violent storms.  Graham pointed to a climate action plan proposed by the Corps which he said calls for more modernized approaches to addressing challenges, better management of facilities like dams and levees, and better engagement with local partners, including sharing science and actionable data.  Graham said this plan is expected to be released in the near future following review of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.  Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) rang warning bells about increased rainfall coupled with sea level rise and the failure of current flood maps in mitigating the crisis, and emphasized the need for the Corps to be working off accurate maps in its emergency response.

Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) and Ranking Member Shelly Moore-Capito (R-WV) posed questions regarding record floods in the northeast, and the need for infrastructure improvements.  Brigadier General Thomas Tickner, Commander of the Corps’ North Atlantic Division, attributed flooding in New York City’s subways to large amounts of rainfall in a very short period of time and the city’s storm water systems’ inability to handle it.  When asked about ways to better overcome flooding and climate risks in the future, Tickner noted the need to modernize its approaches, improve early warning systems, and educate communities about risks.

While the fallout from Hurricane Ida showed in many cases that mitigation and risk management systems have improved over the years, strengthening climate resiliency remains a top priority.  Improvements to storm water infrastructure and flood mitigation programs, and investment in hazard mitigation for communities throughout the country need to be addressed by policy makers as the effects of climate change continue to worsen every year.

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