States need FEMA’s help to prepare for climate change

This can be accomplished if the one agency responsible for disaster preparedness and planning — the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — works closely with states on climate preparedness. The framework is already in place.

Every three years, states submit hazard mitigation plans to FEMA. Hazard mitigation plans identify a wide range of risks that individual states may face, like the wildfires that are currently burning in California, the ongoing drought that’s affecting 87 percent of Texas, as well as major storms like Sandy, which last year battered a half-dozen states along the Northeastern coastline. In addition to identifying future risks from natural disasters, these plans also outline how states can prepare for and mitigate harm from natural disasters.

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Once approved by FEMA, states can receive funding to implement aspects of their plans. And funding hazard mitigation projects can be a highly efficient use of taxpayer money. According to the National Institute of Building Sciences, for every $1 spent by FEMA on hazard mitigation, preparation, and planning, our nation gets back $4 in benefits like reduced emergency response costs and less damage to bridges and buildings.

Unfortunately, many state hazard mitigation plans suffer from a fundamental, dangerous flaw: they completely omit or inadequately consider climate change. Too many states have backward-facing plans that rely solely on historical data to anticipate future disaster scenarios. They fail to take into account the latest scientific projections of longer and drier droughts, more severe flooding, steadily rising sea levels and other changes brought on by climate change. Unless these plans use the best information available, people and their communities will be needlessly at risk.

For example, the most recent Texas plan approved by FEMA likely underestimates the true risks it faces from natural disasters. The plan mentions climate change only a handful of times, and its impacts are only vaguely mentioned in the context of rising sea levels. Climate change is not considered for estimating the frequency or the severity of the multitude of other natural disasters that are affected by climate change and that Texans regularly experience – disasters such as last year’s record drought, the 2011 wildfires that burned nearly 4,000 homes, and Hurricane Ike, which in 2008 caused more than $27 billion in damages.

On top of billions of dollars in post-disaster recovery funds, Texas has in the past two decades also received more than $880 million in hazard mitigation grants. When Texas spent these taxpayer dollars on projects to mitigate future damages, it’s unclear whether the state ever considered climate change’s impact on future natural disasters. Mitigation projects that have already been completed have potentially failed to consider more extreme floods, higher coastal erosion rates due to more frequent storms, or longer, more frequent droughts.

FEMA is currently reviewing a new Texas plan, but it has not yet indicated whether it will require Texas to amend its plan to address climate change. Nor has FEMA offered to assist Texas in assessing increased risks due to climate change.

This situation is not unique. Iowa, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida have all received hundreds of millions of dollars in FEMA hazard mitigation grants, but like Texas, officials from these states earlier this year submitted plans to FEMA that did not adequately assess how climate change is increasing risks from certain natural disasters. And plans that are not based in reality not only fail to protect us, but also likely lead to wasted taxpayer money, spent on projects that won’t do the job they are supposed to.

The White House understands the importance of preparing for climate change. In a major climate address in June, President Obama said, “As we act to curb the greenhouse gas pollution that is driving climate change, we must also prepare for the impacts that are too late to avoid.”

The President has made climate preparedness a priority. Now FEMA needs to do the same.

FEMA must amend its regulations and guidance to ensure that each state’s hazard mitigation plan fully assesses risks from climate-related disasters and lays out strategies that adequately prepares for and reduces those risks. FEMA has a responsibility to ensure that the disaster preparedness funding it provides to states and local communities is used in ways that protects people from the disasters of the future – not just the disasters of the past.

Lehner is the executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.