Federal officials, researchers and community advocates have high hopes for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s new approach to funneling climate resilience funds into areas that need it most, according to a Dec. 13 event organized by the Urban Institute.
In September, FEMA announced the initial 483 “community disaster resilience zones” that will get priority access to federal funds for climate resilience and mitigation projects. The agency gave a census tract that designation if it ranked high on the National Risk Index for natural hazards and the federal Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool identified it as a disadvantaged community.
The concept of community disaster resilience zones “has really grabbed our attention,” said Andrew Rumbach, senior fellow and co-lead of the climate and communities program at the Urban Institute. “We think it could be a major inflection point in U.S. climate and disaster policy.”
The 2022 law mandating the creation of such zones is rooted in an understanding that certain disadvantaged communities tend to be hit harder by natural disasters and struggle to recover more than others, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., who authored the legislation, said at the event. These communities struggle to build climate resilience due to barriers such as a lack of staff and expertise required to successfully apply to federal grant programs, he said.
The designation of community disaster resilience zones aims to do more than just get more federal resources to communities; federal officials hope it will also drive private and philanthropic dollars to places that most need the help. Part of FEMA’s “moonshot” vision for these zones is to have dozens of organizations mobilizing to support communities, said Victoria Salinas, a senior official performing the duties of deputy administrator of resilience at FEMA. She added that every few weeks, investment firms or other investors contact her looking to invest in community resilience.
“We're talking about trillions of dollars worth of assets under management that wants to go into communities to bring about resilience,” Scott Williamson, senior vice president of the Reinsurance Association of America, said at the event. Williamson added that Congress could even create additional legislation to further incentivize private sector investment in the form of transferable tax credits, private activity bonds, public-private partnerships and direct-pay bonds.
“It's really powerful to be able to marry all these resources together and give local decision-makers the ability to select the tool that is exactly right for them at the right time,” Williamson said.
Despite the promise of community disaster resilience zones, numerous experts speaking at the Urban Institute event voiced concerns that the infusion of outside investment in communities could lead to “green gentrification” and the displacement of existing residents. To safeguard against displacement, officials could create anti-displacement requirements in these communities and leverage federal funding requirements to encourage good jobs and affordable housing, said Maddie Sloan, director of disaster recovery and the Fair Housing Project at the justice advocacy organization Texas Appleseed. She added that community members should be compensated for their time spent participating in community engagement and outreach efforts.
To counter gentrification, communities must create opportunities for existing residents to tap into some economic and political power to stay in place post-investment, said Marccus Hendricks, associate professor of urban studies and environmental planning and director of the Stormwater Infrastructure Resilience and Justice Lab at the University of Maryland.
FEMA and researchers speaking at the Urban Institute event plan to keep a close eye on how successful the program is at boosting climate resilience and equity. Williamson suggested measuring the cost savings these investments provide, which could help convince Congress to invest more in resilience projects moving forward. Sloan said she wants to see metrics that value people over property value. It will also be crucial to map exactly where the money goes, Hendricks said.
FEMA plans to identify more community disaster resilience zones in the coming months, but Sen. Peters said he hopes that communities lose their designation in the coming years, as they build resilience.
“The whole idea is that zones fall off the list,” Peters said. “That’s how you measure success. If you’re a zone right now, you don’t want to be a zone later because we’ve been able to marshal resources to go forward in that area.”