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FEMA’s 2019 Preparedness Report Fails to Prepare the Nation for Climate Change

FEMA_-_13132_-_Photograph_by_Bill_Koplitz_taken_on_04-05-2005_in_District_of_ColumbiaBy Marc Kodack

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recently issued its 2019 National Preparedness Report, and it’s conspicuously missing a key threat to security – climate change. The report provides an overview of FEMA’s 2018 efforts to address the National Preparedness Goal. The goal is sub-divided into five mission areas; prevention, protection, mitigation, response, and recovery that together address “the threats, hazards and incidents that pose the greatest risk to the Nation.” Spread across the five mission areas are 32 activities or core capabilities. Despite the unprecedented risks associated with it, climate change and its’ effects—e.g., sea level rise, coastal or inland storm intensity and flooding, increases in temperature, drought, wildfire—are not  mentioned anywhere in the report. None of the 32 activities and core capabilities acknowledge this growing risk factor for the US homeland.

Information for the report was compiled from federal, community/regional and non-governmental sources. In fiscal year 2018, FEMA was the largest provider of preparedness funding grants ($2 billion), augmented by funding from other federal agencies, such as Housing and Urban Development. Grants are used by states, tribes, local governments, businesses and organizations for “risk assessments, disaster mitigations actions, plan development, equipment purchases, training and exercises.” For FEMA, these preparedness grants support capabilities within the five preparedness mission areas. For example, within the mitigation mission area, grants were awarded to support/enhance community resilience, long-term vulnerability reduction, threats and hazards identification, and risk/disaster resilience assessment capabilities. FEMA worked with communities to assess their core capabilities, focusing on response and recovery, determine what level of capability the community wanted to achieve and how far they were from their targets, and rated the accuracy of their capability assessments.

Two mission areas that should address climate change are protection and mitigation.

The protection mission area “encompasses the capabilities necessary to secure the homeland against acts of terrorism and manmade or natural disasters.” However, as summarized in the report, the protection mission is almost exclusively focused on cyber security. While FEMA identifies critical infrastructure as “both public and private sector systems that are vital to national security,” it seems to interpret “vital to national security” in a very narrow way. Critical infrastructure, for example, should include many types of systems, including those related to transportation. Parts of the U.S. transportation system, such as the Interstate Highway System (HIS), for example, are vital to the Department of Defense’s ability to respond and deploy to domestic and international events. Within the IHS, bridges are being adversely affected by climate change. In contrast to FEMA, who’s ignoring this clear problem, the Department of Defense’s installations are incorporating climate change into their planning activities because of the deleterious implications it has for their ability to continue to execute their missions. Clearly, the Department of Defense views critical infrastructure quite differently than FEMA does.

The mitigation mission area “centers on mitigating the impacts of disasters.” Mitigation is defined as “the effort to reduce loss of life and property by lessening the impact of disasters.” While this section of the report mentions that the “number of disasters each year is increasing [and] the Nation can expect to suffer around $54 billion in annual economic losses that result from damage inflicted by hurricane wind and storm-related flooding” it downplays this dangerous trend by simply recommending stricter building codes as a catch-all solution – with no mention of how infrastructure can keep up with rapidly-rising climate risks. And while the authors note that individuals and businesses need to better align their insurance with local threats and hazards (e.g., flood insurance), the authors do nothing to prepare the public for the threats and hazards that are projected in the wake of a changing climate. Again, climate change and adaptation actions that communities can take in the near term to increase community resilience to future events is not considered at all. In contrast, with support from Congress, the Department of Defense will be required to incorporate into all installation master plans, threats to installation resilience from “extreme weather events, mean sea level fluctuation, wildfires, flooding, and other changes in environmental conditions.”

While the report states that in 2018 “the Nation continued to strengthen preparedness across all five mission areas and promote cohesion across all levels of government,” FEMA fails to include any consideration of climate change in its’ own preparedness activities. In the absence of FEMA’s leadership in the face of rising climate risks to security, many local governments are forced to go it alone. FEMA’s preparedness program would be significantly enhanced if it incorporated climate change information readily available from many federal and state sources, including in the most recent National Climate Assessment, and used that information to inform robust actions to prevent and prepare for climate-related risks. There is no excuse for a homeland security organization to completely ignore a major risk.

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