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Illustration by Michael Austin

Extreme Resilience

There’s no denying it: The frequency of extreme weather events has jumped in the last decade. From 2004 to 2013, there were 32 percent more presidentially declared major disasters than during the preceding 10 years. During that nine-year window, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) alone doled out more than $95 billion in federal assistance to help states and localities with disaster-related costs, and experts predict that this amount is going to rise. President Barack Obama cited extreme weather costs to the American economy—$100 billion in 2012 alone—as part of the reason he’s implementing a historic environmental policy that will curb carbon emissions.

Federal review agencies such as the Government Accountability Office (GAO) are stressing that the rise in extreme weather means it’s more important than ever for communities to strengthen their resilience and hazard mitigation before a storm hits. This type of predisaster planning reduces the loss of life and property below the levels that could be expected without mitigation, the GAO notes, but local decision makers are often reluctant to invest in resilience-building efforts.

“One of the areas we think is high-risk for the federal government is the potential for climate change and exposure to extreme weather events because of the long-term fiscal outlook and impact that could have on the government,” explains Chris Currie, the director of the Emergency Management and National Preparedness Issues branch of GAO. “FEMA provides billions in disaster response and recovery, so if storms are getting more extreme and more common, we expect the federal assistance to have to increase, too.”

Businesses rely on federal financial support when it comes to post-storm cleanup, such as debris removal, utility restoration, and overall rebuilding. A GAO report released earlier this year, titled Approaches to Budgeting for Disasters in Selected States, studied how 10 states budget for and fund state-level disaster costs. Michelle Sager, the director of strategic issues at GAO, notes that the increase in major disasters over the past decade has resulted in unprecedented costs for federal, state, and local governments.

If an affected area is approved for federal disaster assistance, the federal government typically pays no less than 75 percent of the costs, while the state and local governments are expected to pay the remaining share. The states studied in the report have different budget mechanisms to cover disaster costs for each fiscal year, but none of the states maintained reserves dedicated solely for future disasters outside of the current fiscal year. 

“The incentives and the way the programs are structured is that states do rely on having assurance that federal assistance will be provided when they are thinking about their own budgeting for disasters,” Sager explains. “Absent any wholesale policy change at the federal level, I would expect that kind of approach to continue—that by and large the federal government provides the bulk of the funding for large scale disasters, and states respond accordingly.”

GAO’s Currie is worried that states’ reliance on federal emergency funding, combined with the increase in extreme weather events, is not a sustainable model. “It’s difficult to incentivize action when you think someone else will foot the bill,” he notes.

In 2014, Currie testified before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Emergency Management, Intergovernmental Relations, and the District of Columbia about the importance of incentivizing disaster mitigation and resilience. 

Building resilience in communities, Currie argues, will ultimately reduce the amount that the federal government spends every year on disaster assistance. However, efforts to promote resilience have been met with reluctance. State and local governments may be concerned that hazard mitigation activities will detract from economic development goals and may perceive that mitigation is costly, according to Currie’s testimony. 

“For these decision makers, there are so many different priorities they’re balancing,” Currie tells Security Management. “They’re trying to keep up roads, build the economy, and encourage businesses to grow in their area. Mitigation projects sometimes are not headline-worthy, and they’re expensive. Oftentimes it costs more money to build a structure or design a development to withstand storms that could or couldn’t happen, and it takes longer.”

Another concern is that part of the push for resilience hinges on reducing fiscal exposure due to climate change—a politically charged, nebulous topic. Currie acknowledges that there is a lack of detailed data on the specific threats of climate change, which means local leaders may be skeptical about addressing the issue. 

“That’s one of the things that state and local officials have told us—that they understand climate change is a concern, but what do they do about it at the local level?” Currie says. “How do they make decisions, what data do they use, where do they get that data?”

After Hurricane Sandy devastated the Eastern Seaboard, Congress appropriated $50 billion in funds to 19 federal agencies to help not only rebuild the region but support resilience efforts. Post-Sandy legislation also brought significant changes to the way FEMA delivers federal disaster assistance to mitigate future damage. In 2013, FEMA issued the National Strategy to Reduce Costs on Future Disasters, which includes engaging in a community dialogue and building up public-private partnerships; enhancing data-driven decisions; aligning incentives promoting disaster cost reduction and resilience; enabling resilient recovery; and supporting disaster risk reduction nationally.

Although an increasing number of federal programs and funding are addressing resilience, Currie says it’s ultimately up to nonfederal entities both inside and outside the government to make the decisions that lead to building resilience in their communities. 

Incorporating resilience into a community’s building code—requiring new structures to be resistant to severe weather—is a strategic first step. There is no national building code, but such mandates are important in communities that regularly face extreme weather events such as tornadoes, earthquakes, or hurricanes. Currie notes that some resilient communities in California incorporate seismic building codes, structure rating systems, and disclosure systems, which help individuals and businesses understand exactly what types of buildings are earthquake-resistant, as well as the risks of inhabiting a structure that is not up to code. 

Although updating building codes may mean higher costs and more inspections for new buildings, it’s even more difficult to go back and retrofit existing structures for resilience, Currie says. 

Another option is to spend money on resilience-strengthening measures after an extreme weather event. Rebuilding with mitigation and incorporating resilience in design can be easier after a disaster has hit, Currie says.

“If you’re going to have to rebuild anyway—and oftentimes these projects are millions of dollars—go the extra mile to incorporate resilience, so you’re not having to potentially rebuild again at a future date, when there’s another disaster.”

Currie notes that it’s also easier to garner the support of local decisionmakers and citizens after a disaster, because the community has just experienced the incident and they are ready to invest to avoid dealing with a similar situation again. Although one of the reasons for promoting resilience is reducing communities’ financial dependence on the federal government, Currie says that federal disaster assistance should be used to strengthen, not just rebuild, the community.

“Everyone will agree that mitigation and resilience is a good idea,” Currie says. “Who can argue that building back stronger is a bad idea? Those investments and rewards are in the future, though, and that’s what makes it very, very difficult to convince people that the investments are worthwhile.”