With climate change-driven flooding and other weather-related disasters becoming more frequent and intense across the U.S., there has never been a greater need for all levels of government to prepare for and respond to these events. And although much of that work is underway, state and federal agency leaders who work on disaster resilience must improve their collaboration and coordination with each other to ensure their policies are helping the most people in the most efficient—and cost-effective—ways.
That was a major theme of a recent two-day event hosted by The Pew Charitable Trusts at which more than 60 climate and resilience leaders from the White House, a number or federal agencies, and 12 states shared their successes, challenges, and ideas on flood preparedness and response.
The event operated under rules to encourage free discussion, which meant that members of the media were not invited and participants would not be directly quoted. As such, insights from the event are presented here anonymously.
Federal officials offered the following thoughts:
- One noted the White House has launched several initiatives focused on improving disaster resilience, preparedness, and response. These include a National Climate Task Force; coordination efforts centered on response, investment, and conservation strategies; and interagency working groups that focus on flooding, wildfire, drought, and extreme heat.
- Several others pointed to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), signed into law by President Joe Biden in November. The act authorizes tens of billions of dollars toward addressing climate resilience, and should help states jump-start or accelerate their flood preparedness and response initiatives. New programs and investments in the law include an $8.7 billion Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient, and Cost-saving Transportation (PROTECT) grant program to support state and local transportation plans and projects that incorporate climate resilience; $1 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program; and $3.5 billion for the FEMA Flood Mitigation Assistance program for use in efforts such as buying out properties that repeatedly flood.
- One observed that the transportation sector is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., accounting for roughly one-third of them. Therefore, states should consider both emissions reduction and disaster resilience in programming and deploying IIJA funds to address and limit the extent of future risks from disasters.
Several officials cited the need to direct resources to vulnerable communities, which tend to bear a disproportionate brunt of climate impacts. One official cited research that found White people accumulated an average of $126,000 in wealth following a disaster while Black, Latino, and Asian residents of the same counties saw their wealth decline $10,000 to $30,000.
State officials offered the following thoughts:
- Resilience leaders broadly cited the new IIJA funding as a positive development, with several states pointing specifically to funding limitations as a “big obstacle” to addressing flood issues. But an even stronger theme at the event was a call for the federal government to help states better access federal funding from disparate sources.
- Numerous state officials cited inconsistencies across federal programs, limiting officials’ ability to leverage multiple funding sources for specific projects. For example, some programs allow for nature-based flood solutions, such as wetland restoration and green roofs, while others do not; another example referenced requirements around buyouts of residential homes, which can vary across several federal funding sources. In response, several of the federal officials acknowledged these issues and said they’re working to streamline processes.
- “We’ve got water coming at us from six sides,” said one coastal state official, who then reeled off root causes that include sea-level rise, more frequent and intense rainfall events, and storm surge. They then noted the difficulty associated with combating floods from multiple sources, and tailoring messaging to specific communities based on their type of flooding threat.
- With many states experiencing population growth and expanded development, several officials cited flooding as a bigger concern than it once was, especially in places with aging roads, tunnels, bridges, and other public structures. “Our infrastructure is undersized for the storms we’re seeing,” one official said, explaining that addressing the issue piecemeal won’t solve the problem. “We need a watershed approach,” they said, not infrastructure upgrades in one area that could result in more water hitting a community downstream.
Despite myriad challenges, officials from both federal and state government pointed to recent successes—including initiatives buying out properties in flood zones, shoring up flood-prone streams, and building more resilient infrastructure—as reasons for optimism. Participants also said they were grateful for the opportunity to convene and compare notes on how to best ensure the country can withstand the more prevalent flooding that climate scientists say will increasingly be part of American life.
Moving forward, Pew will continue to analyze input received during the event and document findings and next steps as part of its efforts to assist federal and state officials around the country make communities more flood resilient.
Mathew Sanders and Forbes Tompkins are senior managers with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ flood-prepared communities project.