Key Observations from Participants in the White House Task Force on Climate Preparedness

Following the release of the report from the White House Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, CSG/ERC Energy and Environment Program staff reached out to state agency officials and representatives who participated in the year-long effort to learn what their biggest takeaways were from involvement in the task force.

Overall, participants were impressed with the level of commitment and support that was provided to the task force. The group had the attention of high-ranking officials in the Obama administration, and says that the White House seemed committed to making federal agencies better able to assist local communities experiencing the impacts of severe weather and a warming climate.

“We really got the message from the White House that this is a priority,” said Deb Markowitz, Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. “I am optimistic that we will see results from this.”

Here are some of the central themes that emerged in the group’s analysis of actions that would improve the usefulness of resources provided by federal agencies to states, towns and cities and tribal jurisdictions hit by natural disasters.

Maximizing Investments

A key recommendation asked that federal agencies better coordinate their efforts when investing in resiliency projects – in transportation, wastewater treatment, energy and other key infrastructure.  Synchronizing programs from different agencies will ensure that federal money is spent wisely, particularly after a major disaster when considerable rebuilding of infrastructure takes place, participants said.

“How often do you rebuild 500 miles of road, 200 bridges and thousands of culverts?  It’s a once-in-a generation opportunity,” said Sue Minter, secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Transportation, referring to the recovery effort her state carried out after Irene.

Participants acknowledged that while motivating such change will take time, enhanced collaboration across agencies is essential to ensuring the effectiveness of resiliency projects.

Another important recommendation included looking for multiple benefits and outcomes when investing federal dollars. Markowitz gave as an example her work with the sub-committee on natural resources, which proposed restoring and conserving ecosystems for resilience while simultaneously remediating other environmental threats. By examining the overlay between climate risks and other challenges, it becomes possible to obtain “co-benefits” and use investments to achieve multiple goals, she said.

As applied to issues of water quality – and in drought-affected areas, water quantity – that approach might involve using what is known as integrated watershed management, Markowitz said. When addressing stormwater management, for example, this focus would incorporate actions that improve compliance with Clean Water Act requirements into plans that enhance the resiliency of infrastructure in areas vulnerable to seawater intrusion from storm surges and sea-level rise, among other threats.

The Need for Data and Science to Guide Resiliency Planning

The task force discussed the need for better coordination among federal agencies responsible for gathering data, both to address information gaps and to explain why there are differences in figures produced by individual agencies. For example, agencies may use different forecasts for future sea-level rise, causing confusion among practitioners and planners tasked with devising strategies to protect coastal communities decades into the future.  Such discrepancies raise questions about how agency data are created, peer reviewed and distributed, participants said.

The group also said that work needs to be done to improve the accuracy of data and mapping, even for areas that are already being affected by sea-level rise, coastal erosion, frequent flooding and other phenomena, and that need to make immediate investments to protect communities.

Gina Campoli, environmental policy manager at Vermont’s Agency of Transportation, said this need was clear during meetings of the team that addressed transportation resiliency within the sub-committee on built infrastructure. Campoli, who led the team, said its emphasis was on creating new design standards, “but we’re not there yet.” The challenge involves first knowing the best science for a given location in order to understand likely future conditions, and then incorporating this information into new engineering practices, she said. Thus, the team’s recommendations focused on the importance of federal support for Department of Transportation (DOT) programs that are trying to bring better science to the local level, such as work being done with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)in Gulf area in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Phase 1 of the Gulf Coast project, sponsored by DOT’s Center for Climate Change and Environmental Forecasting in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey and the FHWA, focused on transportation infrastructure at a regional scale. Its efforts included investigating risks and their potential impacts on coastal ports, roads and air, rail, and public transit systems within a study area that stretched from Houston/Galveston, Texas, to Mobile, Alabama. Phase 2, which will be publicly released on January 15, 2015, narrowed the focus to the area around Mobile, examining vulnerabilities and then developing risk management tools to help transportation system planners, owners, and operators determine which systems and assets to protect and how best to do so.

“If you’re talking about risk in transportation, you have to ask how does that road function – does it lead to a hospital or to a couple of houses at end of a rural road? You have to factor in the functionality of the system to determine risk and funding priorities,” Campoli said.

The problem in transportation is that there is so little funding available for even basic maintenance needed to keep bridges standing and repair potholes, said Campoli. “The task force wasn’t formed to address issues connected with Congress, so we couldn’t bring up new funding.  But we did recommend that DOT’s discretionary programs support resilience activities, and we also asked for more collaboration among the agencies with potentially relevant programs,” she said.

The Role of FEMA: A Call for Changes to Current Rules and Policy Guidance

The task force engaged in much discussion about the role of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the challenges, both practical and cultural, that many states and local governments have encountered in their interactions with the agency during the recovery process. Participants identified three particularly problematic areas: the difficulties experienced  by small communities, especially in rural states, that lack the necessary experience and expertise to navigate FEMA’s very technical requirements; the absence of a more holistic approach to building resilience within and among federal agencies; and the complications that arise when FEMA cycles its personnel out of communities every four months, which can lead to inconsistencies in how agency staff from different regions understand and apply FEMA’s rules.

Markowitz said the task force shone a spotlight on the need for one-stop shopping and the importance of providing officials in small communities with actionable information.  “They need to be able to rely on data, have case studies and know about best practices because it otherwise becomes too confusing out there,” she said.

To illustrate what would be helpful, Markowitz referenced a partnership that includes the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM), the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) and two academic institutions.  The groups are in the process of developing the New York Climate Change Science Clearinghouse, a Web-based tool that will leverage and improve upon the capabilities of existing climate-related sites at state, regional, and federal levels.  Other states in the region are looking into the possibility of joining the effort and tailoring the tool for their own jurisdictions, she said.

In addition, Markowitz suggested that it would be useful if FEMA’s hazard-mitigation fund were to adopt HUD’s community block grant model in which a state can write up plans and allocate money for specific projects without the kind of back and forth that typifies the agency’s current funding process. She was hopeful that discussions in the task force have increased the possibility of such a change.

Minter believes that one of the underlying challenges has to do with the nature and interpretation of the Stafford Act, which was signed into law in 1988, amending the Disaster Relief Act of 1974. The Act was intended to provide an orderly, systemic means of federal natural disaster assistance for state and local communities. It authorizes the president to issue major emergency or disaster declarations for events that overwhelm the resources of state and local governments, and to provide assistance to them. FEMA, now within the Department of Homeland Security, administers most of the authority the statute vests in the president.

The language of the nearly 30-year-old Act makes it difficult for FEMA to address the types of hazard-mitigation measures and resilience upgrades to critical infrastructure needed to address the large-scale, multifaceted disasters that we now face, said Minter, who co-chaired a task force sub-committee on disaster recovery and resilience, and had directly experienced some of these limitations while serving as Vermont’s Irene Recovery Officer from January 2012 to January 2013.

In particular, the Act’s language makes it hard for FEMA and other federal agencies to view recovery and resilience in an integrated way and to incentivize rebuilding based on anticipated future conditions rather than simply replacing damaged structures in kind. The task force has strongly recommended these kinds of operational shifts. Minter illustrated the point by recounting a conversation with Mayor Dawn Zimmer of Hoboken, New Jersey, who described FEMA’s granting structure as a “damaged element, by damaged element, by damaged element” reimbursement approach that prevents communities from looking at their needs holistically and is especially ill-suited to an urban context.

Other federal agencies – including the Department of Housing and Urban Development, DOT, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Labor — also have recovery dollars in their own specific silos.  “If these programs could be seen in concert with one another and when possible, utilized together, the agencies would be able to support a much more beneficial approach to recovery and resiliency,” said Minter.

“We made a recommendation that after a disaster, FEMA should try to bring that integrated approach to recovery as a whole – to be a partner with states and communities that helps them understand programs that exist and how federal resources can work together effectively,” she said. Despite the range of issues that need to be addressed, participants are optimistic that FEMA will be able to improve its ability to partner with communities hit by natural disasters that are recovering and rebuilding for a stronger future.

HUD’s National Disaster Resilience Competition

As conceived of initially, HUD’s National Disaster Resilience Competition would have been a model of the integrative and holistic approach the Task Force recommended, said Minter.

The competition, which supplements federal money with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, offers $1 billion to “spur innovation, creatively distribute limited federal resources, and help communities across the country cope with the reality of severe weather that is being made worse by climate change.”

“The HUD competition was one of the early actions that the president took, and it reflected a lot of the conversations and advocacy of task force members,” said Minter. It also came out of the sense that it was important for something to be done quickly rather than waiting until a complete report was released at the Task Force’s conclusion, she said.

But as the program began to be rolled out, it had to become more narrowly defined because of the current rules of the Community Development Block Grant disaster recovery program that is administering the funding, said Minter.

Addressing Threats to Public Health

Participants also noted the importance of task force work in the field of health care, including a specific recommendation that the surgeon general address this issue.

Markowitz highlighted the importance of recommendations that focus on the plight of vulnerable communities. “If you don’t have resilience in your life under normal circumstances, when a disaster comes, you suffer a disproportionately disruptive impact,’ she said.

As with HUD’s National Disaster Resilience Competition, steps are already being taken at the federal level to address health care, in this case by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).  HHS has released a voluntary climate resilience guide for healthcare providers, design professionals and policymakers, addressing a wide range of health care facility vulnerabilities and identifying best practices that will enhance climate readiness in the sector.

HHS is also developing a suite of online resilience tools for health care facilities as part of the Administration’s new web-based Climate Resilience Toolkit.  The toolkit aims to provide state and local officials with easy access to federal data and software that can be used in planning for the impacts of severe weather in their jurisdictions.

Implementation of Task Force Recommendations and Activities Going Forward

While the task force produced a wide-ranging and detailed analysis of ways that the federal government could better use its resources to help state and local governments prepare for extreme weather events and build resilience across multiple sectors, the question of follow-up will only be answered over time.

Minter noted that for most of its members, the task force report isn’t the end goal. She said that they now see themselves as being part of a network of people who are active on these issues. “We’re continuing to interact and communicate as a group and to participate in meetings,” she said, thereby maintaining the momentum that was generated by participation in the task force.

And although it was formed to examine programs and policies in the executive branch, its members are hoping to have productive conversations with Congress, participants said. Campoli noted that the transportation reauthorization bill provides a good opportunity for doing so because it incorporates policy and therefore could address resilience.

Participants also said that during the period in which the task force was meeting, a parallel process took place at the cabinet level, which included cross-agency discussions about what they can do to be more effective. In addition, top cabinet officials participated in sessions with  task force members.

The seriousness with which the White House took this issue was very impressive, Minter said. “Seeing how the executive branch will implement recommendations across agencies will be very interesting because that’s really what we’re talking about here – agency accountability,” she said.

— By Rona Cohen and Eleanor Saunders

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