Given record-breaking wildfires, hurricanes and other weather disasters that cost lives and billions of dollars amid a pandemic that brought death to every corner of the country, the events of 2020 stretched U.S. emergency management institutions. Local governments have been unable to cope with the disasters, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been strained. This litany of destruction has brought into stark relief problems of capacity and inequity—people of color and low-income communities have been hit disproportionately hard—that have been festering for decades in the nation’s approach to disaster preparedness. Now, with the climate crisis increasing the odds of calamities, we must stop kicking the can down the road and commit to the challenging work of revamping emergency management.
FEMA is supposed to be the agency that steps in when disasters overwhelm local resources, whereas cities, counties and states handle smaller events. But a FEMA National Advisory Council (NAC) report last November noted that state and local emergency management operations struggle even with routine events. Some towns and counties have only a part-time emergency manager, leaving them ill-equipped to prepare for and respond to disasters. As a result, they increasingly turn to FEMA, which ends up with fewer resources to spare when a major catastrophe does occur. When Hurricane Harvey flooded southeastern Texas in 2017 with an unprecedented 60 inches of rain, for example, almost half of the agency’s emergency workforce had already been deployed to other trouble spots. To free itself up, FEMA is now proposing to raise the damage threshold that triggers federal assistance. But that proposal simply will leave local areas more vulnerable. Congress or state legislatures need to supply sustainable funds that build and maintain local emergency management departments, along with any change in the rules for FEMA involvement.
To address the problem that all emergency agencies do little in advance to prepare for disasters, some funding could be earmarked for—and require—certain crucial mitigation work sometimes resisted by local political forces, such as elevating structures in flood-prone areas or instituting zoning laws to reduce wildfire risks. These efforts should incorporate the latest climate science—sea-level-rise projections, for example—so they do not quickly become obsolete. The National Institute of Building Sciences has found that for every $1 that FEMA and other federal agencies spend on mitigating the risks of floods, earthquakes and other hazards, society ultimately saves $6 in costs.
Any future mitigation and recovery funding must also be distributed in an equitable way. Research, including a 2019 study published in Social Problems, has shown that FEMA programs inadvertently entrench and exacerbate inequities because they focus on restoring private property. This approach favors higher-income, typically majority white areas with more valuable homes and infrastructure over people of color and low-income communities, which are both disproportionately affected by disaster and least able to recover from it. To remedy this disparity, FEMA, as well as state and local emergency management agencies, cannot rely solely on cost-benefit analyses to determine what projects to fund, because these weigh in favor of more expensive properties. They should also use other metrics, such as the Social Vulnerability Index, which identifies the populations with the least capacity to deal with disasters. Some local governments have begun to incorporate equity into their emergency planning. In Washington State’s King County, for example, floodplain managers have used census data to understand exactly who lives in flood-prone areas to better target resources and mitigation projects. Others should follow their lead.
One current FEMA program has tried to tackle inequity issues by allowing small, low-income communities to pay less in cost matching, which is a precondition of some FEMA aid. But these smaller governments may not have dedicated staff with the expertise to navigate the complex FEMA application process. In some cases, communities may not have the funds to meet even a lowered threshold for local spending. FEMA can begin to solve this by simplifying its funding requirements and instituting a single application process; both actions were recommended by the NAC report and in February by the Government Accountability Office.
Everyone, not just the well-to-do, should have the opportunity to build back their lives with the resources they need in the wake of disaster.