FEMA must protect the hardest-Hit communities from climate change

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Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
A man walks through a flooded Van Buren Street on September 02, 2021 in Newark, New Jersey. Gov. Phil Murphy declared a state of emergency due to Tropical Storm Ida which caused flooding and power outages throughout New Jersey as the Northeast was hit by record rain and tornadoes. Numerous deaths in New York and…

At least 1 million people across Louisiana were left without power after Hurricane Ida wiped out the power grid. The death toll is likely to rise as vulnerable people are stuck in flooded homes in extremely hot late-summer temperatures.

We are clearly in a climate emergency. As a result, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is supposed to protect communities from the risks of natural disasters, is only becoming more important. But FEMA has failed time and again to protect those hardest hit, particularly communities of color and low-wealth communities.

Research shows that FEMA has contributed to the nation’s racial wealth gap by disproportionately denying aid and assistance to those most at-risk from climate change. As FEMA’s National Advisory Council stated, FEMA recovery programs currently help wealthy homeowners “while lower-income individuals and others sink further into poverty after disasters.”

For example, following Hurricane Harvey in Houston in 2017, a study found that there was a 40 percent higher chance of bankruptcy in neighborhoods with more residents of color because they were less likely to receive FEMA grants compared to majority-white neighborhoods.

At the same time, FEMA programs have also worked to sustain dependence on a fossil-fueled energy system that disproportionately harms people of color and poor people. 

With the climate emergency creating and intensifying natural disasters nationwide, the demand for FEMA’s services is only likely to grow — as are the costs for taxpayers of funding the agency’s work.

Responding to President Joe Biden’s racial justice and climate change executive orders, FEMA recently asked the public how it can better align with national climate and environmental justice commitments. The president’s recent directives are a unique opportunity for FEMA to transform its legacy of racial inequity and dependence on an unsustainable status quo, while also reducing the vast human, ecological and financial costs of future disasters. 

When it comes to rebuilding after natural disasters hit, FEMA has continued to reconstruct the same unreliable and polluting fossil fuel infrastructure that fuels the climate emergency. Instead, FEMA should support the development of distributed solar and other renewable energy resources such as micro-grids, which help communities achieve a more reliable, less costly and carbon-free grid, while also decreasing the potential for power outages. By investing in more resilient power systems, FEMA can save the lives of those most at-risk, without contributing to the climate emergency.

FEMA’s recent missteps in Puerto Rico provide a clear example. After Hurricane Maria in 2018 and a magnitude 6.4 earthquake devastated the island in 2020, FEMA opted to rebuild fossil fuel infrastructure, ignoring Puerto Rico’s untapped potential for solar energy development. As environmental advocate and lawyer Ruth Santiago wrote, investing in this potential and in establishing a decentralized energy system could revolutionize the island’s grid and decrease the impact of future disasters on residents. 

In addition to directing funds toward distributed energy resources and renewables, FEMA should immediately deploy more sustainable alternatives for equitable and effective disaster management. For instance, it should prioritize portable electric generators with accompanying solar generation to provide emergency power. Unlike traditional gasoline or diesel-powered generators, portable electric generators are more reliable, safe and mobile, and don’t emit pollution.

Furthermore, FEMA must stop ignoring climate science in implementing the National Flood Insurance Program. This neglect has resulted in communities being exposed to high-tide flooding, storm surge and wave action.

Instead, FEMA must act on the best available climate science. This includes reducing flood-zone development and risk by immediately incorporating climate change and sea-level rise data in mapping flood areas, following the recommendations of the Technical Mapping Advisory Council. It must also discourage risky development, and remove subsidies to coastal and floodplain developers, repetitive loss property owners, and the private insurance industry. 

All the while, FEMA must address racial bias in its work. In addition to diversifying FEMA’s leadership, this effort should include aligning FEMA programs with the president’s Justice40 Initiative, which aims to have 40 percent of the overall benefits of certain federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities. To support this goal, FEMA should prioritize these communities when allocating aid and assistance, and reform its application processes to ensure they’re maximally accessible to those who need them most. 

FEMA has the power to transform its legacy from one of perpetuating structural injustice to one of championing a just and sustainable future for all. If FEMA uses it, the whole country will benefit. Otherwise, all our communities and especially, those most at-risk, will pay a steep price.

Howard Crystal is senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity’s Energy Justice Program.

Tags Climate change extreme weather FEMA Howard Crystal Hurricane Ida Hurricane Maria Joe Biden Natural disaster
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