The federal government is giving more then $7.5 billion to 15 states and localities hit by major disasters in recent years to help protect against the effects of climate change, one of its largest single investments in disaster mitigation.

The money—$7.65 billion in total—aims to make disaster-damaged communities more resilient by paying for reconstruction projects that will withstand increasingly severe storms, hurricanes and other effects of climate change.

The funding differs from most federal disaster aid because instead of paying simply to repair or rebuild damaged buildings and facilities, communities must spend the recovery money on mitigation projects that “increase resilience to disasters,” according to a recent government notice.

“This is by far the largest single appropriation the federal government has ever made for climate resilience and disaster mitigation,” Rob Moore, a flood risk expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote in a recent blog post.

The money is not “typical federal disaster aid, which tends to put everything back in the same vulnerable locations and replicate vulnerabilities that were just made evident in a disaster,” Moore wrote. Instead, communities will have to design projects “with an additional margin of safety for flooding, to factor in projected future sea level rise, and to invest much more heavily in forward-thinking measures that reduce the risk of future damages in the face of climate change.”

The funding is unusual also because it comes from the Department of Housing and Urban Development instead of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which means that communities must spent at least half of their grants on projects that benefit low- and moderate-income people.

“It was heartening to see Congress make this large of an investment in mitigation and primarily benefiting poor communities and people of modest means,” said Marion McFadden, senior vice president of public policy at Enterprise Community Partners, a nonprofit that develops affordable housing.

“Congress has come a long way in understanding the importance of being forward-looking, just as governors and mayors have,” McFadden added. “In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a real change in how leaders are thinking about climate change.”

The $7.65 billion was approved by Congress and President Trump in February 2018 as part of a broad budget bill that allocates nearly $90 billion in disaster aid. The law directs HUD to spend at least $12 billion on “mitigation activities” in areas heavily damaged by major disasters that occurred from 2015 to 2017, including storms, wildfires and hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and Michael.

In a recently published notice, HUD invited applications for the funding and explained requirements and the kind of projects that would qualify as “mitigation activities.”

For example, flood mitigation projects “must consider high wind and continued sea level rise,” HUD wrote in language that environmentalists hailed because it tacitly acknowledges climate change.

Wildfire mitigation projects “must consider land-use plans that address density and quantity of development,” HUD wrote. And tornado mitigation projects “must consider promoting the construction and use of safe rooms and require or encourage wind engineering measures and construction techniques into building codes.”

The HUD notice also encourages communities to adopt “more stringent building and zoning codes... to limit damage from future severe weather events” and to incorporate “natural or green infrastructure” such as wetlands and land barriers that can absorb storm impacts.

“The notice demonstrates that the federal government is looking to the future and ensuring that funds are going to be used in a way that we’re not throwing good money after bad, which is what should be done with taxpayer dollars,” said McFadden, a former HUD deputy assistant secretary.

States and communities have until early 2020 to tell HUD how they will use the money.

The jurisdictions receiving the $7.65 billion are:

  • Texas—$4.3 billion.
  • Louisiana—$1.2 billion.
  • The U.S. Virgin Islands—$774 million.
  • Florida—$633 million.
  • North Carolina—$168 million.
  • South Carolina—$158 million.
  • West Virginia—$106 million.
  • California—$88 million.
  • Houston—$62 million.
  • Missouri—$42 million.
  • Georgia—$27 million.
  • San Marcos, Texas—$24 million.
  • Richland County, S.C.—$22 million.
  • Columbia, S.C.—$19 million.
  • Lexington County, S.C.—$15 million.

HUD has held off approving $8.2 billion in disaster mitigation funds for Puerto Rico because department officials said they are concerned about the territory’s ability to manage the funding. The money will be made available at a later date (Climatewire, Aug. 6).

Members of Congress had criticized HUD earlier this year for taking so long to publish the notice making the disaster mitigation funds available and describing how they could be spent (Climatewire, May 15).

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news