Accelerating resilience thanks to long-overdue funding

Update: Since this blog was published, FEMA announced that $1 billion in grant funding will be made available through the BRIC program for Fiscal Year 2021.

After a year of record-shattering and economically devastating extreme weather and natural disasters, communities around the country have a new chance to kickstart long-overdue planning and projects to make them more resilient.

New sources of federal support, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) and the STORM Act loan fund could help cities and states hurting from the combination of pandemic and disasters get back on their feet and enhance their resilience to future climate impacts.

As much as $3.7 billion through BRIC will likely be available to local communities whose economies and infrastructure were battered in recent years. In 2020 alone (the second-hottest year on record, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration), 22 weather disasters killed 262 people and inflicted $95 billion in damage. The most deadly and costly were wildfires in the West, which burned more than double the acreage of California’s previous annual record. Along the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Laura left behind $19 billion in costs, including a severely damaged electric grid in southern Louisiana. Farther north, millions of acres of cropland baked in record heat and drought over more than a dozen Western and Midwestern states.

Learn more about all types of extreme weather disasters.

Billion-Dollar Extreme Weather Events

The $3.7 billion that may soon be available comes from vital pandemic relief funding that the federal government made available to states through the Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) in 2020. It’s now eligible for the BRIC program, a pre-disaster mitigation program that prioritizes building code activities, nature-based solutions, and projects that protect critical infrastructure and community facilities. BRIC is funded through a 6% set-aside from funds allocated to the DRF in the prior year, which must be approved by the White House budget office.

The funding makes for a large increase over the $500 million FEMA made available in 2020, the first year of the BRIC program. These investments are a good use of federal dollars, as every $1 invested by the government in pre-disaster mitigation can save society $6 in post-disaster recovery costs.

With their economies already hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, natural-disaster costs strained local budgets past their limits, preventing urgent action. Federal funds have historically been scarce, with the vast majority of it becoming available only after disasters occur. Now, with increased federal support, these communities have the opportunity to better prepare for the next disaster.

More funding would be available if FEMA also maximizes the funding that is available for its Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. That could add up to almost $10 billion available this year across the two programs. FEMA has not indicated if this is likely to occur.

Though this funding will certainly not be able to address all of the nation’s resilience needs, the large influx of dollars will likely spur resilience action while creating much-needed jobs in construction and maintenance. The people in those jobs will prepare already hurting cities for the potential physical and economic impacts of coming storms and wildfires later in 2021 and beyond.

To take full advantage of this new influx of funding, however, local governments will need to have strong project pipelines already in place, or the capacity to develop project plans and funding applications. States, in assembling their grant applications, should work with small and disadvantaged communities to build capacity and increase their access to the funding.

Additional funding will also be available from a new loan fund as a result of the Safeguarding Tomorrow Through Ongoing Risk Mitigation (STORM) Act, a bipartisan measure that was one of the last acts of the 116th Congress in January.

The STORM Act creates a $300 million resilience revolving loan fund for states at FEMA, similar to the EPA’s Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Loan programs. The fund will provide low-interest loans to cities, counties, and states for projects that build resilience to a wide range of disasters, including flooding, drought, and wildfires. As with the EPA programs, communities’ repayment of loan interest will generate additional capital for subsequent projects in other places.

Moving forward, the Biden Administration and Congress have strong opportunities to implement sustained funding increases for resilience and improve communities’ access to it. For example, FEMA should address the complexity and time required of applications for all of its grant programs, a need the Government Accountability Office recently underscored. Across all agencies, the administration should direct the Office of Management and Budget to provide coordinated information on the various resilience funding opportunities available for communities at the federal level, which could ease the application process for local governments. And as C2ES recommended in our recent Climate Policy Priorities for the New Administration and Congress, Congress should significantly increase resources that can help communities build capacity and undergo resilience planning, so that they can implement projects pre-disaster and use recovery funding more strategically when disasters do occur. An economic stimulus and COVID-19 recovery package could also create a national green bank to provide grants and loans for resilience and climate mitigation projects, also outlined in our climate policy priorities.

Climate impacts aren’t going away by themselves, and communities are hit first and hardest when disaster strikes. A sustained and deepened commitment to pre-disaster resilience action at the local level is a critical and necessary priority for federal policymakers looking to transition to a decarbonized, climate-ready economy. C2ES is working in Washington to help steer them toward that goal.