West Virginia today and Virginia yesterday became the seventh and eighth states to obtain the benefits of a federal Major Disaster Declaration in connection with Superstorm Sandy. They follow New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland and Delaware. What does that mean? Money. Lots of money. A key question will be whether that money goes to improving the resilience of the community for the next severe storm.
As the FEMA announcements point out, eligible state and local governments may obtain:
- Payment of not less than 75 percent of the eligible costs for removing debris from public areas and for emergency measures, including direct federal assistance, taken to save lives and protect property and public health
- Payment of not less than 75 percent of the eligible costs for repairing or replacing damaged public facilities, such as roads, bridges, utilities, buildings, schools, recreational areas and similar publicly owned property, as well as certain private non-profit organizations engaged in community service activities.
- Payment of not more than 75 percent of the approved costs for hazard mitigation projects undertaken by state and local governments to prevent or reduce long-term risk to life and property from natural or technological disasters.
However, if improvements are desired, “[f]ederal funding for such improved projects shall be limited to the Federal share of the approved estimate of eligible costs." 44 CFR 206.203(d).
Discerning readers will have latched on to “eligible costs” as the essential criteria of the payments. What are they? The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, 42 U.S.C. 5121-5207, makes that clear and it is not a good result. Under the Stafford Act, eligible costs are “[based on] the design of the facility as the facility existed immediately before the major disaster; and (ii) in conformity with codes, specifications, and standards … applicable at the time at which the disaster occurred.” 42 USC 5172(e)(1)(A). In other words, to put it in the words of Sean Reilly, a Board member of the post-Katrina Louisiana Recovery Authority, “Under the Stafford Act, you pretty much are relegated to building it back the way it was. You get the depreciated dollar, and you get a vision that says, 'OK, that was a 40-year-old building; let's rebuild a 40-year-old building.'”
But surely improved building codes or zoning requirements are covered? They are, but only if they were in place before the calamity. The regulations provide: “For the costs of Federal, State, and local repair or replacement standards which change the predisaster construction of facility to be eligible, the standards must: [among other things, be] formally adopted and implemented by the State or local government on or before the disaster declaration date.” 44 C.F.R. 206.226(b)(3)(i).
One might justifiably be concerned that states and communities are being condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. But there is a path to succor: hazard mitigation by the FEMA Regional Director. “Hazard mitigation” is “any cost effective measure which will reduce the potential for damage to a facility from a disaster event.” 44 CFR 206.201(f). Under the regulations, the Regional Director is authorized to “require cost effective hazard mitigation measures not required by applicable standards. The cost of any requirements for hazard mitigation placed on restoration projects by FEMA will be an eligible cost for FEMA assistance.” 44 CFR 206.226(c). That is, pre-disaster rules and codes are not the only game in town. If a state or municipality rebuilding from Superstorm Sandy wants federal dollars to help it anticipate the exigencies of the future, the FEMA Regional Director must be part of the dialogue.
The future is a changing climate. Thus, the dialogue will almost certainly include climate change adaptation. Indeed, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Wildlife Federation filed a petition in October seeking to have FEMA explicitly require that climate change be considered in the preparation of state hazard mitigation plans. Connecticut and California already do so and FEMA Administrator Fugate appears to be on board. As he stated in February of this year:
"When I talk about climate resilience, I’m talking about how we need to forcefully communicate the risk we face in not building resilience to climate change at the local level, which might not have been in anyone’s experience previously …. We cannot afford to continue to respond to disasters and deal with the consequences under the current model. Risk that is not mitigated, that is not considered in return on investment calculations, oftentime steps up false economies. We will reach a point where we can no longer subsidize this.”
A premise of the NRDC and NWF petition is that "If states receive federal funds for their disaster mitigation efforts, national taxpayers have a right to demand that the states engage in thoughtful planning to reduce the ultimate federal cost." We think few would disagree with that. We likewise think, as the petitioners do, that climate change needs to be part of the plan.