Flood me once, shame on me. Flood me twice, shame on FEMA?

A 20-year-old law would have made communities more resilient to climate change. FEMA didn’t enforce it

Published July 20, 2021 9:00AM (EDT)

A flooded street after Hurricane Sandy. (Getty/jonathansloane)
A flooded street after Hurricane Sandy. (Getty/jonathansloane)

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Over the last 20 years, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, has failed to enforce a law that would have made U.S. cities and towns more resilient to the impacts of climate change, according to a recent federal investigation by the Office of Inspector General in the Department of Homeland Security. 

The law, the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000, required that FEMA write regulations and create policies to encourage communities to prepare for natural disasters and rebuild their infrastructure after emergency events so it is more resilient, taking measures such as improving stormwater management or strengthening buildings against earthquakes. As part of this mandate, FEMA was supposed to restrict the amount of federal funds available to communities to repair repetitively damaged infrastructure from 75 percent to 25 percent of project cost. But instead, the new report shows the same bridges and roads were repaired over and over again using FEMA aid — and in one case, seven times — costing taxpayers almost $2 billion from 2009 to 2018. 

"Mitigating these vulnerabilities is way cheaper than putting it off and rebuilding," said Rob Moore, a climate policy expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC. 

For disasters, every federal dollar spent on mitigating risks today saves $6 in the future, according to a report from the National Institute of Building Sciences. Adopting recommended building codes saves $11 for every dollar spent. Private-sector building retrofits save $4 for every $1 spent. And, it all reduces the risk of injuries, fatalities, and property loss. 

The report from the Office of Inspector General only looked at one FEMA public assistance disaster category, Category C: Roads and Bridges, out of seven, so the real impact of the agency's noncompliance with the law is likely much greater. 

Categories that weren't analyzed in the investigation include water control facilities, public utilities, and parks and recreation. 

In response to the findings, FEMA agreed with the Office of Inspector General that it hadn't complied with the law, but said it was because the agency had been focusing on immediate disaster needs. The agency said it would now work to create the necessary regulations. 

Moore says this investigation revealed just one area that FEMA desperately needs to make updates in. 

"They have a number of programs and authorities that don't reflect the frequency and severity of disasters we are currently experiencing," he said, "most of which are attributable in some form to climate change." 

One example — the National Flood Insurance Program — established local building and zoning codes in 1968 in 22,000 communities across the country. But the zones haven't been updated in decades. The NRDC and the Association of State Floodplain Managers filed a legal petition this year to get them revised, calling for stronger construction standards and updated flood maps. 

According to an independent flood map calculation that takes into account sea-level rise, rainfall, and flooding along small creeks, the number of homes at risk of flooding are far more than current official maps show. And, it's communities of color that are most affected by the miscalculations. In over 60 percent of states, areas with more residents of color had a greater share of unmapped flood risk than the state average. 

The Inspector General report calls attention to the fact that the cost of repairing infrastructure will continue to rise unless FEMA starts enforcing the law, due to increasing severe weather events related to climate change that threaten weak or aging infrastructure. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, FEMA spent an average of $1 billion annually on the federal disaster relief fund. As of 2019, it was up to $8 billion a year. 

By Jena Brooker

Jena Brooker is a contributing writer from Grist.org.

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Climate Change Fema Flood Grist Natural Disasters