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5 Assignments for the Task Force on Climate Preparedness

Superstorm Sandy

SOURCE: AP/Mark Lennihan

A worker walks the roof line of a house under construction in the Breezy Point community of New York's Queens borough on Wednesday, July 24, 2013. It is the first house to be rebuilt in the beachfront community, where more than 110 homes burned to the ground during Superstorm Sandy in October 2012.

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The Fifth Assessment Report of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, released September 27, cautioned that the effects of climate change will continue to worsen due to existing and projected atmospheric levels of carbon and other climate pollutants. IPCC Co-Chair Thomas Stocker warned that “heat waves are very likely to occur more frequently and last longer. As the Earth warms, we expect to see currently wet regions receiving more rainfall, and dry regions receiving less.” This growing threat of extreme weather heightens the urgency to increase U.S. communities’ resilience to future extreme weather events.

Fortunately, President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan includes the first-ever community resilience program, “Building Stronger and Safer Communities and Infrastructure.” A key element will direct existing federal funds to help communities undertake their resilience plans:

The President will direct federal agencies to identify and remove barriers to making climate-resilient investments; identify and remove counterproductive policies that increase vulnerabilities; and encourage and support smarter, more resilient investments, including through agency grants, technical assistance, and other programs, in sectors from transportation and water management to conservation and disaster relief. Agencies will also be directed to ensure that climate risk-management considerations are fully integrated into federal infrastructure and natural resource management planning.

These new funds are an important start, but additional resources are needed to help communities nationwide become more resilient to extreme weather events. Another important element of the president’s plan to invest in community resilience is the guidance from state and local experts. The Climate Action Plan establishes a State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness “to advise on key actions the federal government can take to better support local preparedness and resilience-building efforts.”

The members of this task force will likely include governors, mayors, and other officials who have experienced severe and destructive extreme weather events, and/or have taken steps to protect their constituents from future disasters. Now that the government shutdown—driven by House Republicans—has ended, the Obama administration will likely announce the task force members in the coming days or weeks.

The task force must focus on addressing some important gaps in our federal disaster-relief and resilience programs, including:

  • Lack of data and information about federal disaster-relief and community resilience spending
  • Lack of dedicated federal revenue to invest in community resilience
  • Special efforts to assist low-income communities affected by extreme weather
  • Changes in existing federal disaster law to enhance investments in resilience

To fill these gaps, here are five critical assignments President Obama should give the Task Force on Climate Preparedness after its members have been formally appointed.

Determine the annual cost of federal disaster relief by state

For future federal, state, and local budget-planning purposes, it is essential that government officials know the total amount of annual federal disaster-recovery spending, as well as the amount each state receives for disaster relief. The taxpayers who finance this disaster relief have a right to know too. Yet the Center for American Progress’s recent issue brief, “States of Denial,” was the first comprehensive estimate of states’ disaster-recovery receipts for fiscal years 2011 and 2012. No such analysis exists for other years, as best we can determine.

Determine the cost of future community resilience needs

New York City has a $19.5 billion plan to address vulnerabilities exposed by Superstorm Sandy, particularly damage from sea-level rise and storm surges. Miami Beach must spend $200 million to overhaul its outdated drainage system threatened by sea-level rise, even though its operating and capital budgets for FY 2013/14 is only $50 million. But we cannot identify a credible, comprehensive assessment of communities’ costs to address floods, storms, sea-level rise, heat waves, and wildfires. The price tag for this work will likely add up to hundreds of billions of dollars, but the federal government simply does not know. Federal legislators and officials must understand the cost of protecting people and businesses from future extreme weather events.

Identify dedicated revenue sources for federal investments in community resilience

The Superstorm Sandy emergency-aid law included billions of federal dollars for New Jersey and New York’s resilience efforts. But this is the exception, not the rule. A recent CAP analysis identified only $22 billion in federal resilience investments in FY 2011 and ­2012, compared to $138 billion in disaster-recovery funds—or $1 for prevention for every $6 dedicated to cleanup and restoration. What’s more, many states and communities lack the funds to adequately protect their residents from extreme weather events. Oklahoma communities, for example, do not have enough storm shelters because federal funds “dried up in past years,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

Resilience investments will save lives and protect businesses, and they will also save taxpayers money by reducing future federal disaster-recovery expenditures. Research prepared for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, estimated that every $1 invested in community resilience reduces disaster damages by $4.

At a Clinton Global Initiative event earlier this year, Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) noted:

To invest $3 billion to $4 billion, to try to prevent another $39 billion in losses, or mitigate it? It seems to me to be, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, a pretty smart investment to make for the country.

Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) and 39 other U.S. representatives have urged the Obama administration to develop ideas for reliable investments in resilience. The Task Force on Climate Preparedness should identify potential revenue sources that can consistently assist communities in improving their protection from future extreme weather.

Identify policies that address the needs of low-income communities

A 2012 CAP report determined that the most-severe extreme weather events in 2011 and 2012 typically harmed households with incomes at or below the national median household income level. Another CAP report, released this past August, proposed a number of recommendations to address this problem, including:

  • Increasing affordable housing
  • Providing additional assistance with utility-bill payments for low-income households under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP
  • Extending unemployment insurance in declared disaster areas

The task force should review these proposals and identify additional policies that would help protect low-income households and other vulnerable people from future disasters, as well as ensure adequate resilience investments in these communities.

Identify improvements to the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act that enhance community resilience

The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act governs federal emergency disaster-relief spending under FEMA. It does not, however, require communities receiving FEMA funds to rebuild buildings and infrastructure so that they are more resilient to future climate extreme weather events. The same is true for federal disaster-recovery aid from other departments, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation.

To address this challenge, the CAP report “Shelter from the Superstorm” makes the following recommendation:

To avoid spending taxpayer dollars on rebuilding the same vulnerable structures over and over again, the Department of Housing and Urban Development—or HUD—FEMA, and other federal agencies should require that rebuilding projects supported by federal disaster assistance are resilient to extreme weather and other climate changes. Congress should amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to assure that all FEMA-funded reconstruction is designed to better withstand future extreme weather and other climate-change impacts.

In addition to this change, the Task Force on Climate Preparedness should identify federal disaster programs that could provide technical assistance to recovering communities to help them rebuild more resilient homes, businesses, and infrastructure.

Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Capps, and 27 of their colleagues recently sent a letter to a senior FEMA official, asking the agency whether states include climate risks in their hazardous-mitigation plans. The task force should seek answers to this and the other questions raised in the letter. Finally, the task force should assess whether there are other legislative or executive reforms that would increase community resilience after climate-related disasters.

Conclusion

The goal of the State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness is to address a pressing problem—destruction and damage from extreme weather—that scientists warn us will worsen in the coming years. It is therefore essential that the president charge this task force with addressing knowledge gaps about our expenditures for federal disaster relief and investments in community resilience, identifying federal revenue sources to increase resilience investments and protect our most vulnerable citizens, and proposing changes in policies that are essential to achieve these goals. Without addressing these needs, the task force would leave a major portion of climate preparedness undone and our lives and livelihood still vulnerable to extreme weather from climate change.

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress.

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