As weather and climate disasters climb in number and cost, the pressure to effectively respond is mounting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“We've made some progress, but we have a ways to go yet, in order to make sure that we can continue to keep up with this level of events,” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said at a Washington Post Live event last week.
Each year for the last five years, the U.S. has seen more than 20 billion-dollar disasters — severe weather or climate events that rack up $1 billion or more in costs and damages, Criswell said. Recovery from last year’s billion-dollar disasters has thus far rung up a bill of $175 billion.
The uptick in disasters is forcing FEMA to shift its operations. While the agency used to scale up staffing and preparedness for a short period of time in the summer during hurricane season, Criswell said FEMA is reevaluating its structure to keep pace with the current year-round “operational tempo.”
The agency is also zeroing in on building codes as a strategy to protect communities and lower costs from disasters, Criswell said. Every dollar invested in adopting building codes can save $11 on recovery costs, but only 40% of U.S. counties have modern building codes, she said.
But even the model building codes that guide building practices in the U.S. may be inadequate to protect against future climate impacts, as they rely on historical precipitation data, said Alice Hill, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, at the event. “Those model building codes, even if they're the latest codes, do not yet reflect the future risk,” Hill said.
FEMA can’t direct local governments to adopt updated building codes, so it is focusing on education. “That is something that our team has been working really hard on with our first-ever Building Code Strategy,” Criswell said.
The agency must also become more forward-looking, rather than reactive, said Michael Oppenheimer, director of Princeton University’s Center for Policy Research on Energy and Environment, at the event. Climate change necessitates planning decades in advance, but that hasn’t been FEMA’s job in the past, he said.
“State and local level has responsibility but not the money,” Oppenheimer said. “The federal government has the money, but it hasn't had the mandate to think ahead.” He urged governments to implement solutions now that are simple, cheap and effective, such as cooling centers and repairs to drainage systems — “the stuff that can save lives at a relatively low cost.” In the background, he said, officials should plan for larger projects such as surge barriers.
“Then there are probably some big things in some places that we can't wait with, and those just have to be done now,” Oppenheimer said. “And the federal government has to help localities pay for those.”
FEMA officials aren’t the only ones with disaster resilience on their mind. A slew of disaster-resilience bills have been passed by state legislatures nationwide this year, according to researchers at Columbia Climate School’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness. As of late April, bills enacted in 2023 primarily related to funding appropriation or allocation, changes in emergency management governance, and safety and security.