In a record-breaking year of disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is announcing nearly $3 billion Monday for communities to build resiliency against climate change-fueled extreme weather.
The new money, which will come from Congress’s bipartisan infrastructure law passed last year, is being announced just as the agency is running out of disaster-relief funds and a dangerous hurricane is bearing down on Florida. FEMA needs Congress to approve additional spending when it’s back in session to prevent the agency from falling into the red.
The infrastructure law contained billions of dollars to help make communities more resilient to the impacts of a warming planet, like rising sea levels and stronger storms. FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told CNN studies have shown resilience is an investment that pays off.
“Every dollar that we spend in resilience – like this money right here – saves us $6 in response and recovery costs,” Criswell told CNN. “We want to reduce that complexity of the recoveries, which saves money on the disaster relief fund, because then we don’t have to spend as much to help communities recover from these types of disasters.”
The resiliency funding, the details of which were shared first with CNN, is coming from a different source than what props up FEMA’s disaster relief fund – the money the agency uses to respond to storms. That fund is dangerously close to empty in a year that has had a record number of billion-dollar disasters to-date and a hurricane taking aim at Florida this week.
Criswell told CNN that the agency’s disaster relief fund is projected to run out of money “toward the middle of September” unless Congress passes additional funding to replenish it. Congress is expected to return after Labor Day.
Despite bipartisan support in the Senate, House conservatives have warned they are unhappy with disaster funding being tied to additional funding for Ukraine – which could set up a protracted spending battle. If funding isn’t passed soon after Congress returns in early September, it could hamper the agency’s response to future Atlantic hurricanes and delay long-term recovery efforts in Maui.
FEMA has already factored into its spending the immediate response to the Maui wildfires, Hurricane Hilary in California and the initial response to Idalia, Criswell said. The agency is monitoring the disaster relief fund “daily,” she said, to see if they need to adjust “to make sure that we always have enough to support lifesaving efforts.”
“We are putting plans in place for how we would use our tools to help make sure that we always have funding to support the immediate lifesaving needs,” Criswell said.
Administration officials hope the infusion of new funds for climate resiliency will help make communities stronger and safer. In a first, FEMA is awarding resilience funding for extreme heat, agreeing to fund a project proposed by Portland, Oregon, to plant 10,500 trees over the next three years to provide more shade, improve air quality, and help with flooding during major rainstorms.
“That project is going to be a really great example for other communities to see what’s in the realm of possibility to help combat the extreme heat that we have been experiencing over the last several years and is continuing to increase,” Criswell said. “This is the first one that really allows us to use trees to help reduce the urban heat islands that communities have.”
Other projects that will be funded include strengthening the grid in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, to withstand 150-mph winds and keep power on during hurricanes; installing new sewer mains in Detroit’s flood-prone Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood; and upgrading Nevada’s Hobart Creek Reservoir Dam, both to protect water levels and keep the dam safe.
In addition, FEMA is dispensing millions of dollars to help make communities more resilient to flooding, funding 149 projects in 28 states and the District of Columbia under its flood mitigation assistance program.
The funding will be used to elevate some homes and acquire and demolish others that have flooded repeatedly. Some of the projects include elevating 84 structures and opening new green space in east Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, and elevating 19 homes in the Florida Keys using piers and concrete footings. In addition, the funding will be used to buy and demolish repeatedly flooded buildings in Machesney Park, Illinois, turning the area into green space.
“Our local and community partners are the first responders when extreme weather events unfold, and they are on the front lines of building our nation’s resilience to the impacts of climate change,” Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement.
Beyond FEMA, climate resilience has become a large focus for President Joe Biden, whose White House is working with agencies to deploy $50 billion in total resilience and adaptation money passed in the infrastructure law and Inflation Reduction Act.
Amid an unprecedented year of disasters, Criswell added it’s critical for communities across the nation to make themselves stronger and more prepared as climate change-fueled weather pummels the US year-round.
“We have typically postured ourselves for the peak of hurricane season as our busiest time of the year,” Criswell said. “What we are seeing is it’s a year-round operational tempo like we have never seen before. We have to make sure that we are working with our teams every day to be able to address the severe weather events happening year-round.”