When disaster strikes, state and federal agencies rush to the aid of affected communities. There is often less enthusiasm, however, for allocating limited local resources toward hardening existing infrastructure to mitigate the effect of catastrophic events before they occur.

There are methods and strategies for keeping critical infrastructure operational and communities safe in the wake of a disaster. Developing effective hazard mitigation strategies requires a greater degree of forethought, budget allocation, and relationship building than most local authorities are accustomed to. Taking on these initiatives, however, can dramatically reduce the adverse effects of a natural disaster, reduce the cost of repairs and restorations, and improve environmental and housing equity for minority and low-income communities.

Relationship building, public engagement, and planning

Certain elements of a strong mitigation strategy require some financial investment, while others include relationship building, public engagement, and planning. For example, the worst time to start establishing key stakeholder partnerships is in the wake of a major disaster. Though it’s easy for those who have not had a recent disaster to get complacent, it’s important to establish relationships before they’re needed. 

Another key consideration for improving mitigation is community outreach and education. Having been to countless regions devastated by natural disasters, I can attest that every hard-hit community reacts the same: “I never thought it would happen to me.” I’ve heard those words countless times, even in areas of particularly high risk. Homeowners often don’t know how to find relevant information about their home’s level of risk. Even if they do seek out information, like flood maps, the resources are often inaccurate or out-dated. 

Furthermore, Flood Insurance Rate Maps and local flood ordinances are typically too complicated for the average homeowner. If you look at a property appraiser’s website, it will often say ‘flood zone: A, AE, V, or X,’ letters that have little relevance to homeowners. As a result, property values in high-risk areas continue to rise, while residents continue to be blindsided by disasters. I strongly believe more public outreach and education, as well as a simplification of flood risk terminology, are necessary. 

Funding mitigation projects on an on-going basis

While partnerships and education campaigns are key to improving mitigation efforts and reducing the impacts of natural disasters, it requires some forward-looking financial management as well. 

Hardening infrastructure to better withstand an extreme weather event can dramatically reduce the cost, complexity, and duration of recovery, but these expenditures are rarely incorporated into operational budgets. It’s especially challenging in the utility industry, as revenues are decreasing, and operation and maintenance costs are increasing. 

In lieu of ongoing investments many local governments seek out external funding sources, but can still face budgetary shortfalls. After securing a cost reimbursable grant many find they don’t have the cash flow to fund the project, as they’ve already planned their capital improvement program several years out. 

Many local governments also find themselves stuck in a cycle of damage and repair, or end of useful life and replacement, yet projects that serve to harden infrastructure are never implemented. There needs to be a change in this culture to improve investment in mitigation. This includes activities like integrating mitigation projects, seeking out external funding sources, and developing timelines for implementation into the capital improvement planning process. 

Incentivizing equity in recovery and mitigation programs 

Natural disasters and catastrophic events disproportionately affect at risk communities, and government agencies need to be more intentional about addressing inequality when building recovery programs. According to a 2018 study conducted by Rice University and the University of Pittsburgh, predominantly white, affluent counties see an increase in average wealth following a natural disaster, while predominantly minority counties experience a decline. 

That is in part because affordable housing is more likely to have substandard and less resilient infrastructure, placing residents at higher risk in the event of a severe storm. Low-income properties are also more likely to be built near industrial facilities, which can multiply the damage caused by a disaster event. For example, 60% of Baltimore’s African American population lives within one mile of a toxic release industry. 

True environmental justice requires taking this into account when considering strategies for improving mitigation. FEMA operates under an incentive structure focused on protecting life and property, which is, after all, the agency’s charge. It’s less clear how equity fits into that process. The more recovery programs remain focused on loss of property and damages, the more they disproportionality support those with higher value assets.

Improving outcomes for vulnerable communities requires incorporating equity into grant requirements, such as Benefit Cost Analysis (BCA). FEMA could better serve the country’s most at-risk communities by including equity into the social benefits within the BCA Toolkit alongside traditional considerations like property loss, loss of function, as well as environmental and social benefits.  

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Currently, the only social benefits included in FEMA’s BCA are loss of productivity, mental stress, and anxiety. The agency should include additional benefits related to equity, too. Still, recognition that it’s an important benefit to capture is a directive that needs to come from leadership. 

Flood insurance in low-income communities

Another area of improvement to increase mitigation efforts among at risk communities is insurance. Flood insurance, for example, is only required for federally backed mortgages, which are disproportionately held by more affluent homeowners. In fact, within the eight counties most severely impacted by Hurricane Harvey, only 17% of homeowners had flood insurance.

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Flood insurance also needs to remain affordable and accessible to low-income families, and that’s where local government can make a real impact. Governments can and should use methods to help offset flood insurance premiums and rate increases, such as through the Community Rating System. 

Local governments can implement NFIP higher standards for floodplain management, like adopting higher building code standards related to first floor elevation. Adopting higher standards and enforcing those standards can reduce flood insurance premiums community-wide through participation in the NFIP Community Rating System. 

As extreme weather events become more common, local governments must regularly incorporate mitigation efforts into their capital improvement planning. This includes budgetary considerations, relationship building, education, and outreach. Since these disasters disproportionately affect low income and minority communities, it is imperative they address disparity into the process. Taking these steps can significantly reduce the damage, costs, and human toll of increasingly frequent and severe extreme weather events.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Edward

Edward "Ned" Fernandez is the vice President of disaster management at ICF. Fernandez is a disaster management mitigation expert with experience in resilience planning, floodplain management, grant funding, and program management.

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