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As States Ready Disaster Plans, Feds Urge Them To Consider Climate Change

Demolition crews remove the last remains of a house that was destroyed by Superstorm Sandy, which battered parts of the East Coast, in 2013.
Wayne Parry
Demolition crews remove the last remains of a house that was destroyed by Superstorm Sandy, which battered parts of the East Coast, in 2013.

The Atlantic hurricane season starts next month — a time when coastal states have their disaster plans at the ready. Now, the federal government wants states to consider the potential effects of climate change in those blueprints.

States lay out strategies for reducing harm from a whole host of calamities that might strike, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, or drought.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, gives states money to mitigate those risks — grants that might help pay for tornado safe rooms, or to elevate buildings in a flood zone, for instance.

States typically use historical data to predict risk. By next spring, FEMA wants states to also consider the probability of future challenges posed by climate change as a condition for that funding.

"What we've told folks to do is to look at the changes in the kind of natural hazards," said Roy Wright, deputy associate administrator for mitigation at FEMA.

"They may be looking at changes in terms of the types of storm, both frequency and intensity," he said. "There may be changes in terms of how the hydrology is playing out."

For example, instead of rebuilding a damaged school in an area subject to sea-level rise, a local government might plan instead to relocate it based on climate change projections.

But even talking about climate change can be controversial for a federal agency dependent on Congress for funding. Seven Republican U.S. Senators have written FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, accusing the agency of injecting "unnecessary, ideological-based red tape" into the disaster preparedness process.

"I'm afraid the Obama administration is putting political ideology ahead of science and ahead of helping states in this area," said Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, who signed the letter along with the state's other senator, Bill Cassidy.

So did Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Deb Fischer from Nebraska, John Barrasso of Wyoming, and both of Oklahoma's senators — James Lankford and James Inhofe. Inhofe is chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and the Senate's most vocal global-warming skeptic. In February, he threw a snowball on the Senate floor to discount global warming:

They argue climate model predictions are not accurate, and should not be used as a condition for funding.

Between 2010 and 2014, FEMA granted Louisiana more than a billion dollars for hazard mitigation. Vitter, who is running for governor of Louisiana, says FEMA is wrongly asking states to address trends that have not yet come to pass.

"I'm not disagreeing with taking into account climate change period," Vitter said. "I'm disagreeing with this broad brush."

The climate change requirement only affects money state and local governments use to rebuild more resilient communities. It will not impact federal aid that individuals apply for in a disaster.

Roy Wright with FEMA says climate is only one of the elements states should take into account.

"This requirement says future risks. It is not a requirement to do a climate change plan," said Wright. "FEMA does not have a climate change plan requirement."

Scientists say the government has been slow to deal with the issue.

"The world around us is already managing these risks," said Mark Davis, director of the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy in New Orleans.

"If it's not FEMA that is going to push states into considering climate change, it's going to be the states themselves, businesses, the insurance industry or someone else."

Davis says 17 states already have some aspect of a climate adaptation plan. And financial and insurance industries increasingly require such planning to do business.

Even Louisiana's coastal master plan acknowledges climate change and sea level rise are contributing to the state's alarming rate of land loss.

"Underlying all of the politics are some very real things," says Davis. "We are facing a changing environment. And the changes are getting to the point now that it affects investment, public and private, and human safety."

Davis says there's a lesson from Louisiana ten years ago. He says if the levee system around New Orleans had kept up with the expanding knowledge of hurricane science, Hurricane Katrina might have been a different story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.