On June 1, I’ll mark the start of hurricane season in the Atlantic and my 6th anniversary of moving to Houston. I know now that the coming season will be one of rain-induced anxiety, fueled by a relentless cycle of climate disasters in the years I’ve lived here.
A few weeks after I signed a lease on my first Houston apartment in 2017, Hurricane Harvey struck the city with levels of rain that are still hard to comprehend: 54 inches in just a few days.
In many ways, Harvey is the image of a storm that our federal disaster recovery system is built around: a fundamentally rare event that requires an extraordinary level of resource and response to recover from.
But the reality of a warming climate coupled with increasing urbanization means that extreme disasters aren’t rare anymore. In 2022 alone, there were 18 disasters that cost at least $1 billion, most of which never make the headlines. But with most policymakers located far away from the most affected parts of the country, federal disaster policy and strategy lacks the urgency and focus that this aspect of the climate crisis demands.
Especially in the Gulf South, local and state governments are engaged in a near-constant cycle of disaster recovery, much of it funded by the federal government. But disaster recovery occupies an awkward, ill-defined space in Congress and the national security bureaucracy that is leaving us poorly prepared to meet the demands of climate change.
First, Congress. The appropriations committees are vitally important in appropriating funds for disaster response. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is well known to most Americans and is the first federal agency to arrive on the scene when disaster strikes. Congress regularly monitors FEMA’s disaster relief fund to make sure it has sufficient operating capacity for various disaster events around the country.
Less well known are the many other agencies involved in long-term disaster recovery. FEMA’s mission is to restore the situation to the status quo before the disaster struck. Long-term recovery funds are intended to improve resilience, especially for low-income communities. But there is no standing, permanent authorization for these long-term recovery programs, the most significant of which is the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program for disaster recovery (CDBG-DR). CDBG-DR is a special, emergency form of funding that sits alongside routine block grant funding that underwrites major housing and community development programs around the country. CDBG-DR is intended to build communities forward into greater resilience after disaster, with a particular focus on low- and moderate-income survivors.
Severe delays in delivering assistance beyond the immediate FEMA programs and insurance payments have two main causes. First, it often takes more than six months for Congress to make emergency appropriations available at all. Second, as the Government Accountability Office reported in 2021, “because disaster recovery block grants aren’t part of a permanent program, grant requirements have to be customized for each disaster. This is time-consuming for the agency and grantees—leading to delays in receipt and use of the funds.”
Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in August 2017. I was working for the city’s housing department in January 2019 – 17 months after the storm – when the very first guidelines for the CDBG-DR-funded housing recovery programs were approved, following lengthy contract negotiations with state and federal agencies. While those who rely only on FEMA and insurance payments to recover from a disaster may be able to get back into their storm-damaged homes within about a year, survivors who rely on HUD-funded programs face much longer waits.
It seems like a no-brainer that Congress should permanently authorize the CDBG-DR program. This would make the rules predictable and reduce painful delays. It would also be a step toward overcoming enormous inequities in FEMA’s recovery programs, which are notorious for exacerbating racial wealth inequality and income inequality in general.
In a 2018 study that illustrated how FEMA assistance greatly exacerbates racial wealth inequality, Junia Howell and James Elliott concluded, “The two defining social problems of our day—wealth inequality and rising natural hazard damages—are dynamically linked.” And as NPR reported in 2021, low-income survivors were twice as likely as high-income survivors to have their FEMA assistance claims denied, and high-income homeowners received about twice as much financial assistance to rebuild their homes than the poorest homeowners.
Fixing FEMA is an essential task for this administration. Permanent HUD funding is also part of the solution. But an effort to establish a permanent program in the 2023 omnibus budget failed, likely due to opposition from Republicans who prefer a FEMA-only approach to recovery that excludes programs intended to help those with fewer resources.
Disaster recovery also falls into an awkward space in the national security policymaking framework. While John Kerry established a climate envoy position within the National Security Council (NSC) for the first time, the office is largely focused on future-looking aspects of climate adaptation and transition, especially internationally. Disaster response is a threat that has already arrived on our shores, with similar characteristics to a terrorist attack or critical infrastructure failure: people die, we spend billions of dollars cleaning up, and as a country, we repeat this relentless cycle every year. In this respect, responding to climate disasters could be understood to fall under the mandate of the NSC’s resilience directorate, but its focus appears to be critical infrastructure instead.
Responding to climate disasters requires intense inter-agency coordination: FEMA and HUD, certainly, but also the Small Business Administration (financial assistance), Army Corps of Engineers (infrastructure repair), and the Departments of Agriculture (food assistance) and Transportation (roads and other transit infrastructure), just to name a few. In other areas of national security policy, this process of coordination lies firmly within the NSC. But there is little evidence that the NSC is playing such a role in disaster recovery.
In February 2018, Congress appropriated $6.875 billion for disaster mitigation for storms that had occurred from 2015 – 2017. These funds are described as providing “a unique and significant opportunity…to carry out strategic and high-impact activities to mitigate disaster risks and reduce future losses.” This was a new kind of ambitious, forward-looking funding that sat between the traditional functions of FEMA and HUD. However, without a strong coordinating role from the NSC, it took almost two years to negotiate the program guidelines between the agencies, which were first published in August 2019, a full five years after some eligible storms had occurred.
And without strong leadership from the administration, progress on the disaster-driven racial wealth gap is a non-starter. FEMA is aware of this problem and even convened an advisory panel on equity to address it, but has not followed through on its recommendations.
The outlook for the 2023 hurricane season is uncertain, but water in the Atlantic Ocean is already very warm this spring. If I were in the White House, I’d get ready by pushing for permanent authorization of CDBG-DR programs and ensuring that the NSC is ready to play a strong coordinating role on disaster response. Instead, on June 1, I’ll hope that the weather gods smile on us and the season remains mild.