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With $1 billion disasters rising in the U.S., FEMA administrator weighs in on climate change

Storm-damaged houses after Hurricane Ida on Sept. 4, 2021 in Grand Isle, Louisiana. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
Storm-damaged houses after Hurricane Ida on Sept. 4, 2021 in Grand Isle, Louisiana. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Two decades ago, the U.S. saw about six natural disasters per year with more than $1 billion in damages. This year, the country has already been ravaged by 18, adding up to be the costliest year for U.S. disasters on record.

Between Hurricane Ida battering Louisiana, wildfires in the West and flooding in Tennessee, these tragic events are hitting the country faster and costing more every year. On top of the death and destruction, leading scientists are attributing this trend to climate change for the first time in a United Nations-backed report released earlier this year.

When these fires or floods strike, it’s up to state and local officials to work together with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to rescue and repair. But if the time between these natural disasters is growing shorter and the dollar value is ballooning, FEMA’s budget — and its ability to prepare for future disasters — is in question.

“Unfortunately, I feel like we’re going to continue to see the number of these disasters rise,” says Deanne Criswell, FEMA’s administrator.

Criswell says that the agency has enough funding to handle disasters, but FEMA is considering using the budget to reinforce communities before the disasters strike instead of responding after the tragedy.

“That’s not going to be sustainable for much longer unless we start to really focus our efforts on reducing the impacts of these disasters, as we work to reverse the effects that climate change is having that’s causing these events,” Criswell says.

In August, when middle Tennessee was flooded by 17 inches of rain in 24 hours, Criswell went out to survey the destruction.

“We saw one house that was moved a half a mile off of its foundation into the backyard of the school … because of the force that this water went through,” Criswell says. “[Residents] said it sounded like a freight train coming through the town. Some of them said it sounded like a tornado hitting it, but it was floodwater.”

At a press conference later that day in Tennessee, Criswell openly linked that flood to climate change.

The field of attribution science — attributing natural disasters as a consequence of climate change and warming global temperatures — is relatively new and emerging, but Criswell says it was important for her to make that point explicit.

“We’ve seen already that we can’t just base our planning efforts on historical actions because we are breaking records every single year,” Criswell says. “Those are the types of impacts that we have to start to anticipate — using the science to help drive our actions.”

But it isn’t just about anticipating future disasters. There are also outstanding questions about who is getting disaster aid from FEMA now.

A federal advisory panel found that FEMA’s assistance program may have racial disparities in how the money gets paid out. The report explained that FEMA often sends money to places that can post the matching funds as opposed to poorer communities.

The report also explained that white people in disaster areas saw their wealth increase afterward, whereas Black, Hispanic and Asian communities lost wealth.

Many Americans inherit property and don’t have the documentation needed to prove ownership to FEMA. Ahead of hurricane season this year, FEMA expanded the types of documentation it accepts, Criswell says. Now the agency is seeing an increase in the number of people who are declared eligible for assistance.

“Some of [the changes] will take time,” Criswell says, “but we’re going to keep at this until we can make sure that our programs are putting people first.”

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a project aimed at strengthening the media’s focus on the climate crisis. WBUR is one of 400+ news organizations that have committed to a week of heightened coverage around the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. Check out all our coverage here.

Alexander Tuerk produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Tuerk also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.