First as tragedy, then as farce: FEMA still to adapt to climate change

Despite the agency’s attempts to account for bigger storms, its outdated rules leave communities unprepared for disaster

The Fay Brook Bridge under construction in Vermont.
David Indenbaum
Hurricane Irene roars through Vermont, Aug. 28, 2011.
Sandy Macys / AP

SHARON, Vt. — During tropical storm Irene in 2011, small streams roared like gigantic fire hoses, washing away or severely damaging hundreds of bridges and culverts across Vermont, including Fay Brook Bridge, which had stood for more than 80 years in a narrow valley outside this tiny village.

“Mother Nature is powerful,” says David Indenbaum, an emergency room doctor who lives up a steep slope near the bridge, over what is usually a gentle brook. “It was incredible. I never thought something like that could happen.”

With the old bridge out of commission, Indenbaum’s 40-minute commute to Central Vermont Medical Center, in the town of Berlin, grew by as much as an hour and sent him over unpaved single-lane roads. School buses and emergency vehicles had to take the same detour, adding as many as 12 slow miles to their trips.

Due to climate change, extreme storms and destructive flooding have increased nationally — especially in the Northeast. And here in Sharon, town officials knew after Irene that they needed to replace the Fay Brook Bridge with a sturdier structure. They had heard members of President Barack Obama’s administration tout the need to make communities more resilient to climate change. So they were flabbergasted when the Federal Emergency Management Agency insisted that the government would help fund the project only if Sharon replaced the bridge “in kind,” meaning without making it bigger and stronger to withstand a greater quantity and velocity of water.

Replacing in kind creates “sitting ducks for the next big flood event,” says one Sharon town official.

Source: National Climate Assessment report, 2014, and Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, 2009.

Sharon’s experience illuminates a failure common to FEMA programs: Places where disasters have never, or rarely, hit in the past now face significant damage from bigger storms, sea level rise and other consequences of global warming. Yet federal programs function as if climate were static.

All our infrastructure, all our social systems, all our economic systems and financial support systems have not been designed for this new normal [which] is pushing the boundaries of the institutional structure that used to make FEMA responsive,” says Michael Simpson, chair of the environmental studies department at New England’s Antioch University. “And Sandy and Irene and Katrina are just sort of waves hitting the shore. The tsunami hasn’t come yet.”

MORE: Read this story at our publishing partner, The New England Center for Investigative Reporting

Workers make repairs on Route 4 in Killington, Vermont, on Aug. 30, 2011, after it was washed out by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Irene.
Toby Talbot / AP

An examination of FEMA programs by the New England Center of Investigative Reporting and Al Jazeera America has found that key agency programs fail to account for the observed and predicted changes of rising seas, more severe weather and other risks brought on by global warming:

• FEMA’s Public Assistance Program incentivizes communities to replace damaged culverts, bridges and other infrastructure with similar structures.

• Contradictory federal policies on climate mitigation allow hundreds of millions of federal aid dollars to go unused on the Louisiana coast a decade after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the area.

• Very little FEMA funding is available to protect communities before disasters hit, even if a place is particularly vulnerable. This can have tragic consequence, as in the case of a Colorado town that was left in danger of flooding after a major wildfire but could get no help to upgrade its drainage system. It received millions of dollars from FEMA only after devastating floods destroyed the drainage system and severely damaged homes and businesses.

These shortcomings have yet to be fixed despite efforts by the Obama administration to adapt the agency’s programs to climate change over the past couple years. “We’ve been charged to evaluate how climate change considerations can be incorporated,” says Michael Grimm, director of the risk reduction division of the federal insurance and mitigation administration at FEMA. “It is certainly something FEMA has recognized and is working on.”

A January executive order, yet to be implemented, called for a new standard to enable federally funded projects to withstand greater flooding predicted with climate change and “ensure that projects funded with taxpayer dollars last as long as intended.”

In an earlier action in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, FEMA announced a new policy that allows communities to consider sea level rise when rebuilding with federal dollars after disasters. But experts caution that true reform will require Congress to rewrite the Stafford Act, the basis for FEMA’s rules, which purposely prevents FEMA from upgrading infrastructure. Despite the agency’s recognition of the problem and its efforts to help communities use its funds for climate preparedness, Nicholas Pinter, a geology professor at Southern Illinois University, believes that “it is the statutes, which Congress has given them, which limit what [FEMA] can do.”

Meanwhile, says Jessica Grannis, a lawyer with the Climate Center at Georgetown University Law School, “The problem is that we’re going to be putting people and property back in harm’s way, and the money could potentially be wasted.”

Federal disaster declarations have increased sharply in recent decades

Federal flood disasters in Vermont

Source: FEMA, disaster declarations in Vermont.
Note: "Other" includes all events for which flooding was not specifically cited, such as drought and severe winter storms. Disasters were declared on Aug. 29 and Sept. 1 during Hurricane Irene in 2011, but are counted as one declaration in this chart.

Resisting upgrades in infrastructure puts communities at risk

In Vermont, the widespread devastation caused by Irene woke up state and local government officials to the reality that scientists have long been aware of: Climate change is causing disruptive new weather patterns, dropping huge amounts of rain, ice and snow in short periods, and the trend is predicted to continue. For example, New England saw a 71 percent increase in precipitation between 1958 and 2012.

But FEMA — citing its replacement-in-kind principle — repeatedly balked when Vermont towns sought public assistance funds to upgrade damaged culverts and bridges after Irene, which had slowed down to tropical storm level from hurricane force before it hit the state.

In Sharon’s case, because Fay Brook Bridge was important for getting emergency vehicles to residents in a timely manner, town leaders rushed to rebuild. They got a verbal OK from a FEMA contractor to install a sturdier structure — a precast concrete arch — and moved ahead with construction. Then FEMA officials told them they would only pay to replace the old single-lane bridge in kind.

“It does not make sense: You don’t put back in something that is going to fail,” says Miriam Rubin, who was then the administrative assistant for the town. Sharon was in a panic, she recalls, because it had already spent $344,000, a third of the town’s annual budget, on a replacement bridge.

FEMA eventually promised to reimburse the cost of construction, but it took three years for the agency to reverse its earlier decision. Like Sharon, many other Vermont towns eventually got FEMA funding for bigger culverts and bridges, but only after protracted, case-by-case battles.

The new Fay Brook Bridge, December 2014.
Elizabeth Shogren
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, center, surveys flood damage in Williamstown in July 2013.
Toby Talbot / AP

“It’s not a good way to run a disaster assistance program,” says Ben Rose, chief of recovery and mitigation for Vermont’s Division of Emergency Management. “It leaves an open question from disaster to disaster and administration to administration and leaves our little towns with an uncomfortable level of uncertainty.”

Despite the January executive order from Obama, Vermont officials worry that communities could continue to face similar resistance from FEMA after the next big disaster.

“It’s not fixed,” says Sue Minter, secretary of Vermont’s Transportation Agency and co-chair of a White House task force subcommittee on disaster recovery and resilience.

FEMA rules designed to conserve scarce federal dollars instead waste them, says Deb Markowitz, secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources. For example in Williamstown, a stretch of Flint Road washed out four times, in 2004, 2007, 2011 and in 2013, because two culverts a quarter-mile apart were too small to contain a stream swollen with rainwater. Each time FEMA refused to pay to upgrade the culverts but spent a total of about $1 million to repair the road and both culverts four times. In contrast, a much larger concrete culvert installed in 2013 by the town to replace one of the culverts cost $130,000, according to the town manager, Jackie Higgins. It held during a July deluge that dropped 4.5 inches of rain. (Williamstown recently received approval from the state to upgrade the other culvert as well.)

Despite repeated requests over several months, FEMA refused requests for comment on Vermont’s concerns that FEMA’s in kind requirement hinders community efforts to prepare for bigger storms.

Green infrastructure projects face big obstacles

When FEMA does allocate money to better protect communities from storms, its rules can make it very difficult for local governments to get approval for projects and actually spend the money. This leaves people vulnerable for the next storm.

By March 2014 — more than eight years after Hurricane Katrina — FEMA had yet to spend $812 million in hazard mitigation grants set aside to protect Louisiana from future storms, according to a recent report by the Homeland Security Department inspector general. “This $812 million represents missed or delayed opportunities to protect lives and property from future disasters,” the report states.

City officials in New Orleans say one reason they’ve failed to use the money is that FEMA sets such a high bar for approving green infrastructure projects, which modify landscapes to mimic the protections natural systems provide. This despite the White House’s and many scientists’ touting such projects as important remedies for the increased flooding that comes with climate change.

An urban forest developed by the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority out of five contiguous vacant lots in eastern New Orleans, June 30, 2015.
Ted Jackson / The Times-Picayune / Landov

It has taken several years to get FEMA’s OK for one green infrastructure project in New Orleans, according to Brad Case, the city’s director of hazard mitigation, and other city officials. The $15 million Pontilly project, which is still in the planning stage, would turn 50 vacant lots into a network of sunken gardens and ditches planted with grasses and shrubs designed to ease street flooding.

“Part of the reason the money is not spent is we proposed things like Pontilly that we spent years getting approved,” says Case. Ideally, the city should spend much of its remaining FEMA funds on Pontilly-style projects, Case argues, which would help reduce street flooding. After Katrina, the city ended up owning 2,400 vacant lots. “We could reproduce that project in a lot of other places around town,” says Case, “but that will take forever” because of FEMA’s bureaucratic hurdles.

Instead, the city uses most of its FEMA hazard-mitigation grant money to elevate individual homes. This might help safeguard specific structures but it does nothing to reduce the flooding risk to wider areas. It’s nearly 10 years later and, says Case, “we have to get this money gone.”

The analysis FEMA requires to prove that a project’s benefits outweigh its costs is “slanted” against green infrastructure projects, says Jeffrey Thomas, a New Orleans lawyer and FEMA contractor.

FEMA acknowledged that communities may have trouble meeting requirements for green infrastructure projects, particularly the condition on showing cost-effectiveness according to the agency’s extremely technical benefit/cost analysis. Since these kinds of projects are still uncommon, there is little precedent for getting them through these bureaucratic hurdles, FEMA official Grimm concedes. But FEMA is ready to guide communities that want grants for green infrastructure projects, he adds.

Obama’s executive order was an attempt to encourage such projects: “Where possible, an agency shall use natural systems, ecosystem processes, and nature-based approaches when developing alternatives for consideration.”

Fixing the ways FEMA doles out funds to respond to the hazards of climate change is important because such large numbers of federal dollars are at stake, many experts argue. “Outside of defense spending, this is the biggest area where the feds are spending money to build things,” Thomas says. “Are they compatible with the high aims we are articulating for our cities to be more resilient to climate change?”

No money for an ounce of prevention

Residents of Manitou Springs, Colorado, clean up after a flood of debris and mud swept through a section of the town on July 1, 2013. A year earlier, a fire in nearby Waldo Canyon left the town vulnerable to severe flooding.
Bryan Oller / AP

One of the most glaring examples of how FEMA’s programs are a mismatch for climate change is how difficult it is for communities to get money before a disaster strikes. The FEMA program that provides such funds has been seriously underfunded, according to academics, FEMA contractors and other experts, at $25 million in recent years — a drop in the bucket compared with post-disaster funding.

After the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire burned close to 20,000 acres on the mountain slopes above the tourist town of Manitou Springs, Colorado, town leaders knew the parched landscape greatly heightened the risk of flooding.

But despite local government efforts, Manitou Springs could not get FEMA or other federal money to improve the town’s storm water system, according to state and local officials. So, town officials installed new emergency warning sirens, drilled residents and waited for the disaster they knew was on the way.

On Aug. 9, 2013, it came.

“I’d been living under this shadow of doom for about a year,” Manitou Springs Mayor Marc Snyder recalls. “I remember looking over and seeing that ominous dark cloud over the burn scar and I thought, ‘This is it.’ ”

Manitou Springs sits at the base of several mountains, including the majestic Pikes Peak, which inspired the patriotic song “America the Beautiful.” For 100 years, the town’s storm water system handled the water running off the slopes. But it was no match for floodwaters carrying rocks, trees, mud and ash off the scorched slopes. Dozens of homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged in the flood. So was the storm water system.

“We had to wait for the disaster, and then the funding doors opened up to us,” says Snyder.

FEMA paid for most of a new $6 million drainage system. Upgrading before the flood would have cost far less, and much of the rest of the damage could have been averted, state and local officials agree.

FEMA says it receives requests for several times more funding than it has available each year for preventative projects. “There’s a clear need there,” says FEMA’s Grimm.

In recent years, Obama has asked Congress for more funding for pre-disaster hazard mitigation grants, but Congress has allocated only $25 million. In his 2016 budget request, Obama is seeking eight times that much, $200 million.

“Had Manitou Springs had other mitigation projects before Waldo Canyon, it would have been able to handle post-fire flooding,” says Kevin Klein, director of the Colorado division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

With climate change, many other communities face similar risks as wildfires are predicted to increase in frequency across much of the West.

“The post-fire flooding is predictable: You have a big fire. It scorches the watershed. We know we’re going to have flooding,” Klein says. “We need to have mitigation dollars for that in a pot someplace, but we don’t.”

Obama administration grapples with FEMA programs

It’s too early to judge the impact of the Obama administration’s executive order, which has been attacked by congressional Republicans. Also, FEMA and other agencies have yet to flesh out how they will implement it.

But some states report that FEMA’s 2013 sea level rise policy has helped. For instance, New York City used it to justify the expensive decision to elevate by several feet a new 5.5-mile-long boardwalk in Rockaway, Queens, after Hurricane Sandy severely damaged the old one, according to Heather Roiter Damiano, director of hazard mitigation for the New York City Office of Emergency Management. Another sign of change at FEMA is the agency’s support for a major coastal protection project at Breezy Point, also in Queens, where roughly 350 homes were lost during Sandy.

The epic scale of Sandy moved Congress to allocate tens of billions of dollars for disaster relief and rebuilding. However, communities cannot expect that level of generosity when smaller-scale climate events strike. Many towns and cities have yet to seriously assess the new vulnerabilities that come with climate change or take steps to minimize future damage, such as by steering new construction out of floodplains or adopting building codes that keep key electrical equipment and furnaces out of basements. “Local communities and states need to take more ownership,” says Pinter.

Still, with billions of federal dollars at stake, it’s crucial that FEMA policies adapt to the new climate threats facing communities. “The existing [FEMA] programs don’t help communities leap forward,” says Minter, secretary of Vermont’s Transportation Department. “We have to recognize that change is here. Every chance we have we should be sure to build back for the future.”

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit newsroom based at Boston University and WGBH News that produces investigative reporting and trains the next generation of journalists. The Fund for Investigative Journalism helped fund this report. For additional features on climate change issues, visit necir.org and follow @necirbu.

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