5 Action Steps for FEMA to Lead a National Mobilization to Defeat the Climate Crisis

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Originally published January 15, 2021

The climate crisis is devastating more communities than ever and the U.S. government is still woefully unprepared for its effects. This year’s raging wildfires, widespread heatwaves, and record hurricane season drove home the destructive consequences of poor climate preparation. FEMA has always been the frontline of the federal reaction to climate change; now President-elect Biden must enlist FEMA in a proactive, all-of-government climate mobilization.

Climate change is costing Americans right now. Last year, the climate crisis cost a record $45 billion, and the fiscal impact is only projected to grow. Biden appointee Deanne Criswell will face a new landscape of worsening climate disasters. Criswell is an extremely experienced choice to ensure FEMA leads the way on climate resilience and environmental justice. Criswell prepared the largest city in America for extreme weather events, and she will now be in charge of a proactive plan as FEMA Administrator. President-elect Biden continues to make history with his diverse cabinet, with Criswell poised to become the first woman to lead FEMA.

FEMA’s role isn’t just to respond to disasters, it’s to prepare for them. Criswell should proactively lead cross-agency efforts to build resilience and protect communities from disasters, using programs such as Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities grants. She also has the opportunity to reinvigorate the FEMA’s Corps program to both prepare for and respond to disasters, putting people to work building safer, more resilient communities.

The burdens of climate disasters are not equally distributed. The federal government’s disaster response has continually failed Black and Brown communities, even though they are often hit first and worst. Criswell should also commit FEMA to equitable and just resource distribution and responses to all climate disasters. And Criswell should work to strengthen state and federal mapping programs like the Community Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment to better understand where and how climate is already disrupting Americans lives.

In order to realize Biden’s climate mandate, every federal agency must become a climate agency. The Federal Emergency Management Agency under FEMA veteran Deanne Criswell will be critical in this effort. As President-elect Biden begins an all-out government mobilization to defeat the climate crisis, today, Evergreen Action is releasing 5 concrete actions for how the next FEMA must act:

FEMA plays an important role in understanding where climate change is already disrupting American lives and livelihoods. For example, FEMA monitors risk of flooding from sea level rise through programs like Risk MAP and can inform where building and development takes place. FEMA also helps states, territories, and tribes conduct their own risk assessment with tools like Community Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA). The next FEMA Administrator must work across agencies to strengthen the mapping programs it conducts to ensure the assessments are accurate. FEMA must then also press each state to continue to improve its understanding of and preparation for climate vulnerabilities in each FEMA-approved State Hazard Mitigation Plan. In order to plan for climate risks and protect communities, decision-makers at all levels must have adequate information about current risk.

Using programs like Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) and other hazard mitigation assistance grants, FEMA provides money, technical assistance, and other supportive resources to state, local, tribal, and territorial governments attempting to prepare for disasters, rather than just respond to them. The CARES Act of 2020 provided $45 billion to the FEMA Disaster Relief Fund, of which at least $15 billion can be used for investment in all key disaster response and hazard mitigation needs, under the terms of the Stafford Act. The next FEMA Administrator should proactively encourage states to utilize such investments to deploy clean and distributed electricity systems, build clean and resilient transportation networks, and support healthy forests — all of which combine climate resilience with carbon pollution reductions. The next FEMA Administrator should also look for every opportunity to expand the ways in which FEMA helps communities adapt in advance of climate disasters, including by partnering with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to deploy all relevant funds, such as those in HUD’s Community Development Block Grant programs, appropriately.

President-elect Biden recognizes the importance of putting Americans to work, including through a new “Civilian Climate Corps.” A Civilian Climate Corps allows American workers to gain skills that will help them thrive in the clean energy economy, while also serving their country. And FEMA has a role to play — FEMA Corps, a partnership between FEMA and the Americorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) program, trains and deploys 18–24 year olds to serve communities impacted by a disaster. As part of recommitting to national service in the face of the climate crisis, the next FEMA Administrator should further invest in FEMA Corps, integrate its work with the job creation objectives of any new Climate Corps activity, and advance disaster resilience centrally alongside clean energy job creation. In particular, FEMA Corps should prioritize workforce training and development for Corps members, as well as reorient the Corps program to support pre-disaster resilience, in addition to post-disaster recovery.

Once a climate disaster strikes, FEMA is the first line of defense for many Americans. For too long, FEMA has failed to provide that relief equitably. Now, as Black and Brown communities are hit first and worst by the climate crisis, the next FEMA Administrator must ensure that communities of color and low-income communities receive the support they need for a just recovery, whether those communities are rebuilding or relocation. In particular, FEMA should partner with frontline community members in advance of disasters to craft preparedness and response strategies that meet the needs of that community. FEMA should prioritize investment into these communities to counteract the effects of decades of disinvestment, and to better prepare these communities for climate disasters. After a disaster, FEMA should ensure that Black and Brown individuals have efficient and effective access to disaster aid applications, and that their applications are given equitable treatment. And if a community chooses to relocate, rather than rebuild, FEMA, in coordination with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, must develop a plan for ensuring that low-income households, renters, and other vulnerable populations who do not have access to buyout money do have access to affordable housing.

As the summer of 2020 demonstrated all too well, climate fires can wreak havoc across the United States, and especially in western states. But in recent years, FEMA has rejected many petitions for long-term federal recovery aid in places hard-hit by climate driven wildfires. FEMA cannot neglect low-density rural areas, particularly when distributing Individual Assistance grants. The next FEMA Administrator must ensure that climate disaster aid is available to all who need it, and must ensure that the formulas and processes that determine where money flows account for this need.

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