The Caldor Fire burns homes along a ridge on August 30, 2021 near South Lake Tahoe, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images).
WASHINGTON — Another grueling summer disaster season is arriving, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is under intense pressure even as its portfolio balloons, it pleads for more money from Congress and criticism comes on several fronts.
The agency manages more than 300 disaster declarations a year, a dramatic increase from the average of 108 disasters it responded to just a decade ago. For 2022, the disaster outlook is daunting.
Wildfires are expected to burn through millions of acres as Western states struggle with another spring drought, with so-called prescribed burns by the U.S. Forest Service slammed after they were blamed for devastating New Mexico fires this spring. A busy Atlantic hurricane season is on track to wreak havoc well into the autumn.
Tornadoes are forecast to continue destroying homes and businesses throughout the Central Plains as COVID-19 numbers, once again, tick up, adding another complicated layer to disaster response.
“That is the world we’re living in now. The storms are more frequent. The storms are more intense. And we need to be ready,” FEMA Deputy Associate Administrator for Response and Recovery David Bibo told States Newsroom in a late April interview.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual Atlantic hurricane forecast, released Tuesday, predicts another above normal season.
NOAA administrator Rick Spinrad noted while discussing the forecast that the United States has “just experienced two extremely active hurricane seasons, marking the first time on record that two consecutive hurricane seasons exhausted the list of 21 storm names.”
This year’s Atlantic hurricane season, he said, would likely bring at least 14 named storms with a minimum of six of those turning into hurricanes and at least three of those hurricanes turning into major storms that reach Category 3 or above.
FEMA pays close attention to NOAA’s forecast when predicting hurricanes’ effects.
The agency prepositions supplies like food, water and generators that communities typically need immediately following a natural disaster. But Bibo noted that people should have emergency supplies of their own and know what natural disasters are most likely to hit them, so they can have a plan in place.
Americans should know how they’ll get information about evacuation orders, where they’ll evacuate to and how they’ll reach loved ones in an emergency, he said.
“It only takes one hurricane or one wildfire in your community to really have a dramatic effect on people’s lives,” Bibo said.
Helping Americans recover after a wildfire is a significant part of the FEMA mission, though combating wildfires on federal lands falls to the U.S. Forest Service, which is part of the Department of Agriculture, and Interior Department.
Randy Moore, chief of the Forest Service, told members of Congress in late April the agency was “preparing for another long and arduous fire year made worse by continuing severe drought across the West.”
“Last year we had 29,000 firefighters fighting fires, primarily in the West, and it still wasn’t enough,” he said. “We have to be really aggressive and forthright in trying to reduce the conditions that are a root cause of these fires out there.”
The proposal suggests a “paradigm shift” for the agency, moving towards logging and prescribed burns to deal with the build-up of forest density that has contributed to worsening wildfires.
“We need to thin Western forests and return low-intensity fire to Western landscapes in the form of both prescribed and natural fire, working to ensure that forest lands and communities are resilient in the face of the wildland fire that fire-adapted landscapes need,” the report said.
Moore cautioned the Forest Service, responsible for 193 million acres of forests and grasslands, needs at least $20 billion more in the years ahead to hire sufficient firefighters, pay them well enough to ensure wildland firefighting as a career and to address a maintenance backlog that can exacerbate wildfires.
The bipartisan infrastructure law from last year provided about $3 billion for wildfires, but Moore said that’s just a “down payment” on the work that needs to be done.
“This is just not nearly enough to really get at the problem,” Moore said.
But Ohio Republican Rep. David Joyce, the ranking member on the House panel in charge of funding the Forest Service, said he had “serious concerns about the scale of increase.”
“As the nation faces record inflation, we must be extremely cognizant of the financial decisions we are making, as to not saddle our future generations with unnecessary economic burdens and debt,” Joyce said. “Like all Americans, the federal government must live within its means and doing so will require us to make difficult choices and discern wants from actual needs.”
The Forest Service’s use of prescribed burns has also come under scrutiny in recent months.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the agency was remiss when it ignited a prescribed burn in her state on April 6 that later turned into the Hermits Peak fire.
“For me, it’s negligent to consider a prescribed burn in a windy season, in a state that’s under an extreme drought warning statewide,” she said. “So I think that it is likely that Congress and most of our federal partners accept that there is significant federal liability.”
Federal officials have opened a review of the prescribed burn, but have so far declined to publicly release the plan that’s supposed to be put together before intentionally lighting a wildfire.
Lujan Grisham said there wouldn’t be any more prescribed burns in New Mexico while the wildfires continue to burn.
FEMA is also asking Congress for more money in the coming years to address the ever-increasing number of disasters it responds to annually.
U.S. lawmakers provided the agency with $23.9 billion for the current fiscal year, a $2.19 billion boost from the prior year.
But still more is needed, officials say, leading FEMA to request Congress increase its funding during the next fiscal year, slated to begin in October, to $25.1 billion in discretionary spending.
FEMA officials have yet to testify on Capitol Hill about the request, though some lawmakers are questioning the way the agency responds to natural disasters and how it revised the National Flood Insurance Program.
A handful of Democratic lawmakers have introduced legislation they say would address “systemic inequities” in who receives FEMA support.
“For decades, we have seen low-income communities and communities of color left behind after a disaster strikes,” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat. “It’s past time that the federal government — and particularly the Federal Emergency Management Agency — makes disaster assistance equity a real priority to reduce barriers to recovery.”
FEMA has taken some steps under the Biden administration to address how it distributes federal disaster relief. That includes broadening the types of documents individuals could use to prove they owned or rented a house ahead of a disaster.
FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told U.S. House lawmakers in April that policy changes made last year when FEMA was heading into hurricane season led to “42,000 homeowners being eligible for disaster assistance from us that we would have previously denied.”
“I think making these simple policy changes that we did last year made a tremendous difference,” Criswell said, adding FEMA is looking at making other long-term changes to continue building equity into disaster response.
The new policy allows homeowners or renters to use state motor vehicle registration forms and utility bills to prove where they lived ahead of a natural disaster.
Thompson, chair of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee, said that while he’s glad the Biden administration has made “many positive changes,” he wants to see the new programs made permanent and for FEMA to expand on its efforts.
The bill would require the FEMA Administrator to work with the Housing and Urban Development secretary and Small Business Administration administrator to create and implement “a process to ensure equity” throughout all programs.
FEMA has also tried to improve equity by overhauling how the National Flood Insurance Program determines a home’s flooding risk and what it charges homeowners for a policy.
The program, known as Risk Rating 2.0, is the most significant update to flood insurance premiums since the NFIP began in 1968.
The updated pricing, which took effect April 1, calculates a homeowner’s flood insurance premium by their property’s specific risk, not the flood zone they’re in.
Under the former system, FEMA said “policyholders with lower-valued homes [were] paying more than their share of the risk while policyholders with higher-valued homes [were] paying less than their share of the risk.”
“Because Risk Rating 2.0 considers rebuilding costs, FEMA can equitably distribute premiums across all policyholders based on home value and a property’s unique flood risk,” the agency said.
The change led to an increase in monthly costs for 77% of people with flood insurance with 7% of people paying between $10 – $20 more a month and 4% paying more than $20 more per month, according to FEMA.
But the new system has infuriated some U.S. lawmakers, including Louisiana Republican Rep. Garret Graves.
During a hearing with the FEMA administrator last month, Graves said he believed the agency was discriminating against people in several states due to the “huge surge in flood insurance rates.”
He noted some of his constituents had their annual flood insurance costs go from around $600 to $7,000, $8,000 or $9,000 per year.
“I’m having a lot of trouble understanding how you can be talking about equity and addressing marginalized or underserved communities, when FEMA is administratively thrusting these types of actions on our constituents,” Graves said.
FEMA Administrator Criswell said that the new flood insurance premiums ensure that “individuals that have homes that are in lower risk areas are not subsidizing homes that are in higher risk areas.”
What’s more important than that, Criswell said, is that now “homeowners truly understand what their risk is, which means that they have a better idea of how they can plan to protect their family.”
Weather and climate disasters
Last year the United States dealt with 20 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters that led to 688 direct or indirect deaths, according to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information.
The storms caused about $145 billion in damages, with Hurricane Ida, which made landfall in Louisiana in August, contributing to $75 billion, the mid-February winter storm and cold accounting for $24 billion and the Western wildfires causing $10.9 billion.
The frequency and severity of extreme weather events during 2021 was “concerning because it hints that the extremely high activity of recent years is becoming the new normal.”
Three broad factors are leading to the increase in weather and climate disasters, including more assets at risk, vulnerability and “the fact that climate change is increasing the frequency of some types of extremes that lead to billion-dollar disasters,” the report said.
The report, published in January, notes that climate change is “supercharging the increasing frequency and intensity of certain types of extreme weather that lead to billion-dollar disasters — most notably the rise in vulnerability to drought, lengthening wildfire seasons in the Western states, and the potential for extremely heavy rainfall becoming more common in the eastern states.”
Rising sea levels are also exacerbating storm surge flooding from hurricanes.
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