WASHINGTON – Federal officials showing how quickly the Biden administration is overhauling climate policies after years of refusal under former President Donald J. Trump want to free up to $ 10 billion at the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pre-strike to protect against climate disasters.
Best known for responding to hurricanes, floods, and forest fires, the agency plans to spend the money to prevent damage by building sea walls, elevating or relocating homes at risk of flooding, and taking other steps when climate change storms and other natural disasters exacerbated.
“It would overshadow any previous funding program of its kind,” said Daniel Kaniewski, a former assistant administrator at FEMA and now general manager at Marsh & McLennan Companies, a consulting firm.
The FEMA plan would use a budgeting maneuver to use a portion of the agency’s total disaster spending on climate protection projects, according to people familiar with discussions within the agency.
Last year, FEMA took a leadership role in the fight against Covid-19 – and the agency plans to factor in Covid’s spending on the formula that diverts money to climate projects. This would allow the Biden administration to quickly and dramatically increase climate resilience funding without action from Congress, which would create a godsend that could increase funding more than sixfold.
Michael M. Grimm, FEMA deputy assistant administrator for civil protection, said the agency’s initial estimates suggested that the program, called Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC), could have up to $ 3.7 billion could stand. By comparison, this program has only $ 500 million in grants to date.
More of that $ 3.7 billion “could be imminent,” Grimm said in a statement.
However, according to some estimates, if FEMA also decides to use Covid dollars towards a similar fund, the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, the amount of new money could potentially rise to as high as $ 10 billion, which is aimed at rebuilding communities to support a disaster. Mr Grimm said the decision to provide this funding had not yet been made.
The proposal wouldn’t necessarily cut the money available to address Covid, according to those familiar with the plan. Rather, it would allow FEMA to draw additional resilience money from the government-provided Disaster Fund, which Congress routinely replenishes once the fund is drawn.
FEMA’s plan would have to be approved by the White House Budget Office. After Mr Biden’s victory, members of his transition team said they viewed the new funding as a way for the new government to deliver on its promise to fight climate change.
Jan. 26, 2021, 8:18 ET
A White House spokesman, Vedant Patel, did not respond to requests for comment.
The proposal is an attempt by the Biden administration to address what experts call climate adaptation – an area of climate policy that differs from reducing greenhouse gas emissions and focuses on making people, homes and communities better protected from the effects of warming to protect the planet. These include more frequent and severe storms, floods and forest fires, as well as rising seas.
The United States has mixed records on this front.
In many coastal states, housing construction is growing fastest in areas hit hardest by flooding, including places that may soon be submerged. And despite strong public support for stricter building codes in high-risk areas, only a third of local jurisdictions have included disaster-resistant provisions in their building codes.
In the face of rapidly rising disaster costs, the Trump administration took some steps to make communities more resilient to the effects of climate change, even if they did not use the term. FEMA and other agencies have increased their focus on getting people to move away from vulnerable areas rather than always paying them to rebuild. And the agency urged Congress to create the BRIC program to help cities and states increase preparedness, before rather than after a disaster.
But federal officials were also affected by Trump’s insistence on excessive climate change.
When FEMA launched its four-year Disaster Management Plan in 2018, the words “climate change” were nowhere to be found. Given the record fires in California for years, Trump said the problem was too many leaves on the forest floor. Mr Trump said rising temperatures are exacerbating the problem and replied, “It’s getting cooler. You just watch. “
As a candidate, Mr Biden promised to focus on climate adaptation. And on his first day as president, he signed an order imposing higher construction standards for buildings or infrastructure in flood areas that are built with federal funds. The order, first imposed by President Barack Obama, was overturned by Mr Trump.
Mr Biden’s move has been praised by disaster groups. “This action restores a forward-looking policy that will help keep tax dollars from being washed away by the next flood,” said Forbes Tompkins, who works with the Pew Charitable Trusts, an advocacy group on federal flood policy, in a statement .
But sending billions of dollars in new money into FEMA’s disaster programs would do more than just resume the adjustment policies of the Obama era. The BRIC program came into being after the brutal disaster season of 2017, when the US was hit in rapid succession by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, and forest fires in California, which were then the worst ever recorded. Federal disaster expenditure skyrocketed.
A few months later, federal researchers reported that for every US dollar it spent protecting a community from disaster, the government later saved US $ 6. In 2018, Congress created the program to capitalize on those savings and provide more cash upfront. The first grants should be awarded this year.
If the Biden White House approves the plan, it may find allies in Congress, even among Republicans.
The use of Covid funds to increase this money has been supported by both parties in Congress in the past. In October, representative Peter A. DeFazio, the Democratic chairman of FEMA’s House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, sent the agency a letter asking them to use the Covid money.
This letter was co-signed by Representative Sam Graves, senior Republican on the committee. However, according to former officials, FEMA has been unable to get permission from the Trump administration’s budget bureau.
The new money would present some challenges, according to those familiar with the program. State and local governments have to pay 25 percent of the cost of projects. This is a particularly big hurdle as Covid’s economic downturn has destroyed national budgets. And these officials would have to develop projects large enough to use the new funds.
Still, it’s well worth the extra funding, said Kaniewski, the former FEMA official. “The more reduction funds, the better,” he said. “This is about as good a taxpayer investment as you can find.”