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COLUMN: Emergency Managers Must Leverage Opportunities in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill

It is an unsustainable moral hazard to continue rewarding dangerous behaviors that continue to stretch our nation’s disaster response and recovery mechanisms to the brink.

Emergency managers across the country are being inundated with disaster recovery and resilience funding as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the corresponding American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) as well as other major disasters. With these various, and sometimes competing, opportunities before them, it is becoming increasingly difficult for communities to understand what they are entitled to and what opportunities new legislation provides. Considering this, we wanted to highlight a unique opportunity that may be off the emergency management community’s radar, the Safeguarding Tomorrow Through the Ongoing Risk Mitigation (STORM) Act.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law last month presents numerous opportunities for emergency managers to reduce disaster risk. This new law includes additional funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) Building Infrastructure and Communities program, and new funding streams for dam safety, flood mitigation, and cybersecurity. Notably, the law includes $500 million for the STORM Act, which will allow states to capitalize and establish revolving loan funds to more efficiently execute mitigation projects that can reduce their disaster risks.

To benefit from this program, state emergency managers should act now to establish revolving loan funds to access the federal funding for the STORM Act while local governments work to identify risks and develop hazard mitigation projects.

What Exactly Is the STORM Act?

The STORM Act authorizes FEMA to provide capitalization grants to states to establish and run revolving loan funds for risk mitigation efforts. State revolving loan funds can be used to help meet the non-federal match portion of FEMA Hazard Mitigation Assistance grant programs and other federal grant programs. For example, FEMA mitigation programs are typically 75 percent federally funded and require a 25 percent non-federal match. State governments could use revolving funds to make low-interest loans to local governments to finance projects that reduce disaster risk, improve resilience, or mitigate the effects of climate change, while helping them meet the non-federal match.

These low-interest funds will allow cities and states to repay the loans with savings from mitigation projects. They also give loan recipients the flexibility to respond to disasters without paying high-interest rates so they can invest in their communities in a timely manner – cutting bureaucratic red tape of having to wait on the federal government for reimbursement to invest in their resilience.

Projects eligible for STORM Act capitalization could include a wide variety of activities, including projects that reduce risks exacerbated by severe storms, drought, wildfires, earthquakes, flooding, and shoreline erosion as well as resilient infrastructure that would reduce the risk of these hazards.

Currently, states are still awaiting guidance from FEMA regarding eligibility and access to this funding. It is imperative that guidance issued by FEMA is clear so that states choosing to establish a fund can do so confidently and in compliance with federal requirements – ensuring that any future funds and funds-matching is not deemed ineligible and recuperated by the federal government later.

What States Can Do Now

States should consider establishing resilience revolving loan funds now to leverage opportunities and funding from the federal government. Hypothetically, emergency managers could model resilience funds after similar funds that already exist for environmental measures. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed a federal-state partnership that provides communities low-cost financing for water quality and quantity infrastructure projects. States that have established funds for this program could easily adapt the model to disaster mitigation and resilience.

It is an unsustainable moral hazard to continue rewarding dangerous behaviors that continue to stretch our nation’s disaster response and recovery mechanisms to the brink. The optimal framework for disaster response and recovery is one that is locally executed, state managed, and federally supported — every level of government, and the private sector, must have a stake in the game to improve long-term recovery outcomes and reduce overall disaster costs.

A best practice example is the state of Maryland. Earlier this year, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Resilient Maryland Revolving Loan Fund into law. The fund is capitalized with $25 million in state funding. This capitalization will be open to local jurisdictions that have developed high-quality hazard mitigation and resilience projects for federal funding that require a non-federal funding match.

In Maryland, the resilience revolving loan fund will allow the state to focus on community-based mitigation to disasters. This includes mixed gray and green infrastructure projects that span multiple communities. These projects can cost millions of dollars and be out of reach without a supplemental funding source. Projects could include shoreline stabilization, stream restoration, and infrastructure improvements.

Improving Resilience and Equity

Hazard mitigation and resilience projects are inherently local. One problem that local jurisdictions may encounter is the availability of funds to meet the non-federal match required by FEMA Hazard Mitigation Assistance and other federal grants. This is especially daunting for less populous and disadvantaged communities with smaller budgets. A revolving loan fund will allow these communities to be able to leverage federal opportunities that otherwise would be inaccessible.

Buying down risk and building resilience are costly endeavors up front; however, they are high value over time. Emergency managers need to refocus current thinking on mitigation and evolve from benefit cost analysis to return on investment. Providing funding for the non-federal match requirement would allow communities to develop quality, community-based hazard mitigation and resilience projects that are long-lasting.

Emergency Management’s Important Role

Our country was impacted by sixteen separate billion-dollar disasters last year alone. 2020 also marked the sixth consecutive year in which 10 or more separate billion-dollar disaster events impacted communities nationwide. This year, the frequency and magnitude of disasters has continued to increase, and emergency managers continue to play an ever-important role in the disaster management process. Accordingly, emergency managers – who excel in project management and problem-solving – have the qualities that lend themselves to successful operation of a resilience program like the STORM Act offers. This innovative new program will provide communities with the critical opportunity to invest in projects that reduce damage and minimize risks of these deadlier and more catastrophic disasters that our nation will continue to face in years to come.

Brock Long and Chas Eby
Brock Long is the former Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and an Editorial Board member at HSToday. As the FEMA Administrator, Brock led major initiatives that will have long-lasting impacts on the emergency management community. He rapidly transformed the agency’s business enterprise by implementing innovative Community Lifeline and FEMA Integration Team concepts to strengthen public-private partnerships and permanently embed full-time staff within the offices of state and tribal governments to better meet constituent needs. Further, as the result of his effective advocacy and eight influential congressional testimonies, the Disaster Recovery Reform Act (DRRA) became law in October 2018, making pre-disaster mitigation a national priority with the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) grant program. From 2008-2011, Brock served as Director of Alabama’s Emergency Management Agency (AEMA) under Governor Bob Riley. As Director, he served as the State Coordinating Officer for 14 disasters, including eight presidentially declared events. Brock also served as an on-scene State Incident Commander for the Alabama Unified Command during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Chas Eby is Deputy Executive Director at Maryland Department of Emergency Management. He is an Adjunct Professor in Integrated Homeland Security Management at Towson University and a former Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative Fellow at Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. Eby formerly served as Chief Planner for Emergency Preparedness and Pandemic Influenza Program Coordinator at the Maryland Department of Health & Mental Hygiene.

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