5 Disaster Resilience Challenges Facing State and Federal Officials

New findings from Pew-hosted summit highlight impacts of capacity and funding issues

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5 Disaster Resilience Challenges Facing State and Federal Officials
An aerial picture taken on September 29, 2022 shows piled up boats in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers, Florida. - Hurricane Ian left much of coastal southwest Florida in darkness early on Thursday, bringing "catastrophic" flooding that left officials readying a huge emergency response to a storm of rare intensity.
Hurricane Ian leaves boats piled atop each other on Sept. 29, 2022, after the catastrophic storm slammed into Fort Myers, Florida.
Ricardo Arduengo/Contributor

To ensure communities prepare for, recover from, and build resilience to natural disasters, officials at all levels of government must coordinate effectively—which is far easier said than done. To help identify and alleviate challenges to that collaboration, The Pew Charitable Trusts hosted a two-day event for federal and state resilience experts and commissioned an in-depth analysis from Council Oak, a Washington-based public policy consulting firm, to further explore how to break down barriers among state and federal agencies that inhibit disaster resilience efforts.

Pew’s Forbes Tompkins (standing) moderates a panel at the organization’s June 2022 resilience event with FEMA Acting Deputy Administrator for Resilience Victoria Salinas (left, in foreground); David Hayes (center), White House special assistant to the president for climate policy; and Andrew Wishnia, Transportation Department assistant secretary for climate policy, who joined remotely and is visible on the monitor.
Pew’s Forbes Tompkins (standing) moderates a panel at the organization’s June 2022 resilience event with FEMA Acting Deputy Administrator for Resilience Victoria Salinas (left, in foreground); David Hayes (center), White House special assistant to the president for climate policy; and Andrew Wishnia, Transportation Department assistant secretary for climate policy, who joined remotely and is visible on the monitor.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

Here are five key takeaways from input gathered during Pew’s event:

1. Capacity constraints hinder planning and investment.

Federal and state officials expressed at the event that limited capacity within local and state government is an obstacle to proactive planning and pre-disaster investment—an issue that persists even when funding is available. State officials specifically expressed concern about limited staff, resources, and expertise, especially in small, rural, and historically marginalized communities. This in turn leads to deficiencies in data collection, planning, development of funding applications, and ultimately, implementation of plans. Participants also anticipated considerable challenges for state and local governments to adhere to the timelines mandated in recent federal funding mechanisms, including the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), both of which were enacted in 2021.

2. Deficient risk data muddies the picture for planners.

Communities are challenged both by gaps in data and a lack of understanding of how to use the data that is currently available. State participants noted that many of the local communities they work with have difficulty using data developed at the state or national scale for local planning purposes. Additionally, more data may not always be the answer: Many state and local governments cannot keep up with the ever-growing number of new data sources and toolkits coming online, struggling to use that data to support applications for federal funding. Participants expressed a desire for federal, state, and academic partners to work together to develop central data repositories, and coordinate on the rollout of new tools and data.

3. Securing needed funding remains a challenge.

When new federal funding programs are rolled out, guidance and rules often focus on federal objectives and fail to adequately account for state and local needs. To address this issue, federal agencies should partner with states prior to issuing guidance, rules, and funding to better understand state and local objectives and perceptions of current and future risks. Federal agencies should also work directly with communities to ensure resources can be strategically directed to locally identified issues. Similarly, state officials and agencies should do their part to work more closely with local communities to overcome resource and capacity constraints.

4. Bureaucracy worsens funding woes.

The application process for federal resilience grants presents a daunting challenge to many states and local communities. To help communities track and apply for grants, state, federal, and academic partners should develop a database of opportunities that applicants can filter by project type and eligibility requirements. Simplifying and streamlining requirements and grant application and monitoring processes across federal agencies and programs would encourage state and local governments to apply for a wider array of resources. Also, many federal funding streams that could support disaster resilience are available only to certain state agencies—which might not be the same agencies responsible for that state’s resilience activities.

5. Investing and planning before—not after—disasters is key to success.

Federal funding, planning, and implementation processes favor post-disaster reactions, versus pre-disaster planning and mitigation efforts that yield far higher returns on investment. Additionally, guidance and requirements for funding that can be used to invest in disaster resilience, such as through IIJA, are often confusing for officials who have less experience in resilience and pre-disaster investments. This may further hinder the effectiveness of these programs if communities and states are disincentivized to apply for federal funding because they are concerned about complicated eligibility criteria and potential penalties for noncompliance. The culmination of these factors makes it difficult for states to fully leverage available resources to address risk creatively and holistically—before the next disaster.

Despite these challenges, the Pew event facilitated fruitful discussion and fostered new relationships that can help federal and state practitioners better address the issues they face. Federal agency participants expressed a strong desire to leverage the authorities and resources at their disposal to effectively partner with states, and stakeholders at all levels should continue working together to ensure communities most in need of help can access federal funding. Simultaneously, states will need to better prioritize resilience by working to ensure practitioners have the resources they need to plan for, design, and implement programs and projects addressing natural disasters today and into the future.

Mathew Sanders is a senior manager and Kristiane Huber is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ flood-prepared communities project.

State offices and agencies:

  • Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Office of Climate Planning
  • Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection
  • State of Florida Governor’s Office
  • State of Louisiana Governor’s Office
  • Louisiana Office of Community Development, Economic Development and Infrastructure Programs
  • Maryland Department of Transportation, Office of Climate
  • Maryland Department of the Environment
  • New York Department of Environmental Conservation
  • North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency
  • North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality
  • Oklahoma Water Resource Board
  • Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank
  • South Carolina Office of Resilience
  • Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation
  • West Virginia State Resiliency Office
  • Washington Department of Natural Resources
  • Washington Department of Commerce

Federal agencies:

  • Federal Emergency Management Agency
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
  • U.S. Department of Transportation
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  • U.S. Geological Survey
  • The White House Council on Environmental Quality
  • The White House Office of Science and Technology

Nonprofits and academic institutions:

  • Enterprise Community Partners
  • National Fish & Wildlife Foundation
  • National Institute of Building Sciences
  • Virginia Institute of Marine Science

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