Will climate change spell disaster for FEMA?
Climate change will inevitably bring more natural disasters to Americans, but will the government’s primary response team, FEMA, be able to keep up – or will it get swept away?
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a mandate to prepare for, prevent, respond to, and recover from domestic disasters through both financial and physical resources. While it has been operational for 37 years, the agency came under fire ten years ago after its confusion, miscommunication, and supply failures in response to Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast.  Since then, it has bolstered its efforts to become a well-oiled machine in disaster response.
FEMA’s role will become significantly augmented as climate change creates extreme variability in weather patterns, leading to increased natural disasters like wildfires, droughts, hurricanes, and floods. Since there is no way that FEMA itself can reduce the variability that comes with climate change, it will need to accommodate it. Furthermore, FEMA has traditionally played a reactionary role in disaster relief, rather than looking forward.
What FEMA is doing
FEMA has implemented two major forward-looking policies that will make it more efficient as natural disasters increasingly demand its resources.
- FEMA has focused on forecasting future climate conditions and how they will impact natural disasters. One of the primary conclusions is that flooding will increase by 45 percent by 2100. For this reason, FEMA has vertically integrated to administer the National Flood Insurance Program, which provides flood insurance to families located in high-risk floodplains. By focusing on forecasting, FEMA is better able to plan for the types and magnitudes of impending natural disasters.
- FEMA has also shifted some of the burden of natural disaster prevention to state authorities to better utilize local resources to achieve FEMA’s purposes. They have done this with financial incentives – if state authorities implement disaster prevention policies and projects, FEMA will allocate more of their budget to that state. These projects could include flood buyouts, tornado and hurricane “safe rooms,” elevation of flood-prone buildings, wind and seismic retrofits of public buildings, stormwater management, defensible wildfire space, etc., depending on the natural disaster risks of individual states. However, if the states do not provide evidence of disaster prevention, FEMA reserves the right not to fund them. It is estimated that such pre-disaster mitigation projects will result in a $1.6B reduction in future disaster losses and a $1.2B reduction in future property damage.
FEMA Disaster Assistance and Preparedness Grants (2005-2016)
Other potential solutions
While these measures will be effective, FEMA’s own operations need to accommodate the variability that is caused by climate change. They have a few options:
- Forecasting is becoming increasingly important to FEMA, especially in understanding how longer term weather patterns will impact the type and frequency of natural disasters. Some argue that there is a lack of visibility and detailed information on natural disasters associated with climate change. However, partnering with an independent research organization could provide more visibility into which resources should be ramped up by FEMA.
- FEMA has also suffered from a lag in response time because of their centralized resources. FEMA should create some slack in their system by increasing inventory in the right locations. Tactically, this means deploying more resources at the state and local levels. FEMA resources being ready to respond more quickly to the same lead time because of their distributed locations will result in better outcomes for affected areas.
- Given the increased frequency of natural disasters due to climate change, FEMA has an opportunity to iterate on its disaster relief protocol until best practices are defined and can be deployed to similar disaster relief efforts. Standardizing the response to disaster relief will lead to better and more consistent responses.
FEMA has already seen some of the major effects of climate change in its disaster relief operations. With more planning for the future and deploying resources more efficiently, we should be confident that FEMA will be there for us when we need them.
 FEMA Website, https://www.fema.gov, accessed November 2016.
 Chris Edwards, “Hurricane Katrina: Remembering the Federal Failures,” Cato Institute, August 27, 2015, https://www.cato.org/blog/hurricane-katrina-remembering-federal-failures, accessed November 2016.
 Rebecca M. Henderson, Sophus A. Reinert, Polina Dekhtyar, and Amram Migdal, “Climate Change in 2016: Implications for Business,” HBS No. 317-032 (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2016), p. 4.
 Kate Shephard and James West, “FEMA Report: Climate Change Could Increase Areas at Risk of Flood by 45 Percent,” Mother Jones (blog), June 13, 2013, http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/06/climate-change-could-double-number-americans-federal-flood-insurance, accessed November 2016.
 Luke Whelan, “Hello, state lawmakers: Want to ignore climate change? Prepare to lose FEMA funding,” Mother Jones (blog), April 1, 2015, http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2015/03/fema-governors-climate-change, accessed November 2016.
 State of Alaska Hazard Mitigation Plan, https://ready.alaska.gov/Plans, accessed November 2016.
 Potential Cost Savings from the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program (Congress of the United States, Congressional Budget Office, 2007), https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/110th-congress-2007-2008/reports/09-28-disaster.pdf, accessed November 2016.
Student comments on Will climate change spell disaster for FEMA?
FEMA sure has grown and changed post Katrina, hasn’t it? Thankfully of course since that was a bungled operation of epic proportions. That said, one of my biggest concerns with FEMA leading the way on disaster response issues is that its budget is so tied to the political party that is in office. And with many high ranking members of the Republican Party “unconvinced” that climate change is a reality, I wonder what will happen to its budget long-term. Can (hopefully) President Clinton do enough to fund the agency moving forward to weather (haha) a Republican presidency after her? Or would a (shudder) … Trump just close it down entirely to save money since climate change isn’t real? I think this will be one of the biggest sources of variability this organization will need to address in the coming decades in order to be consistently on the front lines.
Great post! As @KenzieH mentioned, the political nature of such an important organizations as FEMA is unfortunate. However, as the severity of global climate change ramps up, there will likely be fewer and fewer people arguing to reduce FEMA’s budget. From their website on the topic, it does appear that they are well aware of this, and as you discuss, they are proactively planning for the events that climate change will likely cause: http://www.fema.gov/climate-change
Great post, Ritaroo! I’m in complete agreement with the responders above in that their ability to respond to and prepare for climate change is incredibly impacted by the political process. FEMA may do well to invest a portion of its time to advocacy within government and with local media. Something seems a bit strange about the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program to me, though, and I worry a bit about its potential effectiveness. CBO tells us that the grants that FEMA makes to states are cost-effective, but if FEMA withholds disaster relief funding from states who haven’t invested in mitigation programs, won’t they then require more funding in the future? And are the grants provided by FEMA truly incremental to investments that states would make on their own? The CBO analysis actually calls out this point of uncertainty in its summary of the cost savings. Hopefully states are making rational trade-offs and won’t end up in the doom loop of withholding short-term funding and handcuffing their own futures. Is every state attacking that problem with the same level of sophistication? I’m not so certain.
I would also love to see more of a focus on planning for and ameliorating the long-term effects of natural disasters. If climate change continues unchecked, certain coastal areas may become uninhabitable. While it seems like climate change is pushing FEMA to take a more proactive approach (rather than reacting to individual disasters), I would love to see FEMA take the lead on understanding the impact of population displacement in the longer term – though in response to previous comments, they may simply be too cash-strapped to do what we expect them to.
DJ Ritaroo: great post. I’m conflicted about whether FEMA should be in the preventative measures business. The obvious connection is that, yes, if there were more investment in floodwalls, updated sewer system, water-proof transportation and utility tunnels, et cetera, then FEMA could be more efficient in focusing on the work that needs to get done mid-disaster. Plus, the FEMA mission does include mitigation and preparation. However, I worry that FEMA reputation as “first responders,” rather than mitigators, could mean that the agency isn’t given the resources necessary to actually finance the large-scale projects that real mitigation would require.
While the shifting of this responsibility to the states is an interesting move—and in some ways acknowledges that the infrastructure construction requires closer on-the-ground actors than FEMA can provide—I believe the federal government should be playing a more central role in channeling federal funds to interstate projects, such as large-scale seawalls and the relocation of our most vulnerable citizens.
Thank you! Great post – it’s good to see more discussion of climate change in the government. I agree with the comments above and your own observations around what is FEMA’s role in prevention. My first question was if they applied any kind of “risk management” process to direct funds where they could mitigate the most risk. This is an approach I have seen other budget-strapped organizations take to get the most bang-for-buck. Doing a little research, I found that they are doing this for Floods. They require any federal funding used to either 1) repair from already damaged floods (i.e. Sandy) or 2) build new structures meet a set of minimum requirements that reduce the flood risk in the future. I thought this was a good approach that we should see applied to other natural disasters – hurricanes, fires, snowstorms etc…