5 Ways the New Congress Should Support Resilient Infrastructure

The 210 freeway remains closed as flames continue to spread under moonlight, September 2017.

In the past two years, hurricanes have devastated urban and rural communities from Puerto Rico to North Carolina, Florida, and American Samoa. Record-breaking and deadly wildfires have raged across Northern and Southern California, displacing families, destroying homes, and devastating communities. In the first three months of 2018 alone, the United States saw three disasters with damage topping $1 billion.

These two years of extreme weather are the latest in a sobering trend. Since 1980, the United States has suffered 238 weather- and climate-related disasters causing a billion dollars or more in damage. Billion-dollar events are growing markedly more frequent: Over the entire 37-year period between 1980 and 2017, the annual average number of such events was six, but in the past five years for which complete data are available, the annual average number of billion-dollar plus events (adjusted for inflation) nearly doubled to 11.6.

The United States is seeing more billion-dollar plus disasters because carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels and other human activities have warmed the planet to temperatures never before experienced in human history. Above-average sea surface temperatures contributed to the rapid intensification and record-breaking rainfall from Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Soaring temperatures and a stalled jet stream, which scientists attribute to climate change, helped fuel California’s explosion of catastrophic wildfires this year. Nationwide, 4.7 million homes and nearly $1 trillion in coastal property is currently at risk of sea-level rise.

What’s more, while Mother Nature may not discriminate, as the old adage goes, extreme weather exacerbated by climate change does: No matter where severe weather events strike, they disproportionately harm families living paycheck-to-paycheck, who are least able to prepare for and recover from disasters. Low-income areas and communities of color in both urban and in rural America have suffered gravely from the past two years’ extreme weather—most notably from Hurricane Maria, which led to the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans in Puerto Rico and destroyed the island’s electric grid.

In the event that the new Congress considers measures to upgrade and repair America’s crumbling infrastructure, it is clear that lawmakers must do more than patch potholes and refurbish bridges. States and localities need significantly more assistance to plan for and mitigate the effects of more extreme weather, particularly in areas that face the greatest risks and have the most needs.

The following five measures to build resilience to more severe weather and other climate change threats and to improve the health, safety, and well-being of all communities should be part of any infrastructure package that the new Congress considers.

Create State Future Funds

Stronger storms, rising sea-levels, hotter heat waves, and other climate change threats are straining the nation’s aging infrastructure—which supports state economies, public health, and the daily lives of Americans—from damaging roads to knocking out electricity and flooding communities. State and local leaders are increasingly confronted with the need to build infrastructure that can withstand climate change effects while improving families’ economic stability and protecting the air, water, and natural areas that are essential for healthy communities. Congress can help address this challenge by creating State Future Funds—federally supported revolving loan funds to encourage innovative transportation systems, energy infrastructure, and flood protections in areas that need them the most, including low-income areas and communities of color.

Modeled on the highly successful revolving loan funds for clean and drinking water infrastructure, State Future Funds would provide low-interest or interest-free loans and loan guarantees, while leveraging philanthropic and private capital, to expand investments in renewable energy, residential and commercial energy-efficiency improvements, regional transportation services, electric-vehicle charging stations, and job-training programs, among other critical future-ready investments. Similar to the Resilient Communities Revolving Loan Fund proposed in the Senate Democrats’ “Better Deal” agenda in 2017, State Future Funds are a forward-thinking approach to modernizing infrastructure that drives state economies, supporting equitable access to economic opportunities and clean energy and improving neighborhood livability and resilience in cities and rural areas.

Increase predisaster mitigation funding

When it comes to extreme weather, the old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure holds true. Every dollar invested in predisaster mitigation—meaning measures taken before disaster strikes to make infrastructure and communities more resilient in the face of more powerful floods, winds, rains, fire, or other storms—results in $6 saved in recovery and rebuilding costs, according to the National Institute of Building Sciences. Yet, “[f]rom 2005 to 2014, the federal government spent $277.6 billion on disaster assistance, while FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] designated less than $600 million toward its primary pre-disaster mitigation program,” according to an analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts. That means Congress has spent 460 times more on responding to disasters than on preventing the most catastrophic outcomes from extreme weather events.

FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program can help states, communities, tribes, and territories develop hazard mitigation plans that assess extreme weather risks in light of climate change; support projects such as elevating homes or offering buyouts to owners of repeatedly flooded properties; finance the storm-proofing of schools, hospitals, drinking-water systems, and other critical infrastructure; and support green infrastructure solutions such as wetlands restoration that help absorb floodwater before it damages homes and other infrastructure. Congress should at a minimum double annual funding for the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program, relative to the fiscal year 2018 appropriation, to at least $500 million in total.

Reduce flood risks in communities by strengthening federal building requirements

Infrastructure and facilities built with federal dollars should be able to stand the test of time, meaning they should be able to withstand flood risks associated with the impacts of climate change, including more frequent and severe storms and sea-level rise. After Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the federal government issued a new Federal Flood Risk Management Standard to do just that, raising standards for federally supported infrastructure in areas at risk of flooding to prevent taxpayer dollars from being wasted on subpar projects. The Trump administration rescinded those rules 10 days before Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas last year, putting public safety and taxpayer infrastructure investments at risk.

Congress should direct the executive branch to reinstate the stronger flood risk standard for federally funded projects as part of any infrastructure package.

In addition, the federal government, through FEMA, is responsible for updating flood maps, which in turn determine whether households are required to purchase flood insurance. Updating the maps is a time-intensive and costly endeavor, and because the maps are based on historic flood data, they usually do not accurately reflect the increased risks of flooding resulting from climate change. These systemic shortcomings are part of the reason why, from 1999 to 2009, 75 percent of damage from flooding in the greater Houston area occurred outside FEMA’s 100-year flood plain. Congress should increase funding at FEMA to update flood maps in the states and localities that are most at risk of flooding as a result of climate change so that local planners can make more informed decisions and homeowners are aware of their real flood risks.

Protect communities from toxic pollution

Communities have a right to live free from exposure to dangerous toxic pollution in their soil, the air they breathe, and the water they drink. Yet persistent racism embedded in federal housing policies and local planning and permitting decisions has concentrated toxic polluters near communities of color, creating disproportionately high environmental and public health risks in these areas relative to more well-to-do white neighborhoods. Hurricanes Harvey, Florence, and Maria laid bare the elevated risks that extreme weather poses to communities located near toxic Superfund sites and active industrial polluters.

President Donald Trump’s FY 2018 budget proposed slashing Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) funds for Superfund cleanups by roughly 25 percent. In response to bipartisan opposition to these proposed cuts, President Trump’s 2019 budget proposal included $1 billion for the Superfund program, roughly on par with the program’s 2017 funding level. But merely maintaining status quo funding is insufficient to protect the 53 million people living within three miles of the existing 1,836 Superfund sites. The Superfund program budget was roughly halved between 1999 and 2015, after the federal authority to fine polluters to fund toxic site cleanup when responsible parties were unwilling or unable to pay—the so-called polluter pays provision—expired in 1995. This deep budget cut has created substantial cleanup delays, which the Trump administration has exacerbated. After just 12 months in office, Trump officials sliced overall enforcement of polluter fees roughly in half relative to the first year of the past three administrations, making illegal pollution easier and cheaper for companies.

To accelerate Superfund site cleanup, Congress should reinstate the polluter pays provision to fine polluters to help pay for toxic site remediation. Congress should also increase funds for EPA’s Superfund Emergency Response and Removal program, which helps to protect communities from oil spills and sudden releases of toxic substances before, during, and after natural disasters. In addition, the Trump administration’s 2019 budget calls for EPA’s enforcement budget to be cut by 16 percent, or $53 million. Instead, Congress should increase EPA’s enforcement budget, including to collect polluter fees for sudden releases of toxic pollution before and during extreme weather events and to hold companies responsible for cleanups. Lastly, Congress should investigate the dramatic drop of polluter fee enforcement and Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s removal of three polluted sites created by his former employer, Dow Chemical, from the priority cleanup list, among other conflicts of interest between President Trump’s top EPA officials and the industries they regulate.

Create a disaster deductible

In addition to increasing federal support for measures to build resilient homes and communities before disaster strikes, states and municipalities should be incentivized to avoid risky development and strengthen lax land-use and building codes that can result in more costly and devastating damages. Creating a disaster deductible—a predetermined threshold that states would need to meet to access disaster aid through FEMA’s Public Assistance Program—is one way to do just that.

Congress should direct FEMA to create a new federal disaster deductible to help lower the public health risks and costs of future disasters. States and cities with forward-leaning and equitable land-use policies that take into account future extreme weather risk, up-to-date building codes, strong design guidelines for buildings and infrastructure, investments in microgrids and renewable energy, and other policies that increase community resilience should be rewarded with a lower disaster deductible than those with status quo policies that jack up disaster damages. Tribes, other communities of color, and communities in which most families earn below the federal median income should be exempt from meeting the disaster deductible. Congress should also commission a study to assess design options and advise FEMA on developing such a program.

Conclusion

It’s not a question of if the next extreme weather event will come, but when. Congress can and should be doing vastly more to help communities in both rural and urban areas prepare for climate change impacts, particularly in flood-prone and underresourced areas. Any infrastructure bill that fails to help communities build for the future will ultimately waste taxpayer dollars and needlessly put lives, homes, and communities at risk. It’s past time for Congress to support equitable and resilient infrastructure policies, such as those described above, to improve the health, safety, and well-being of all communities.

Kristina Costa is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Cathleen Kelly is a senior fellow at the Center.

The authors would like to thank Sally Hardin, Rob Brenner, Brendan Doyle, Carl Chancellor, and Tricia Woodcome for their contributions to this column.