In climate resilience push, US federal cash flows to coastal rich

MOSELEY, Virginia — When deputy clerk Kelly Smith saw how changing flood risk maps could saddle many of her Montana city’s about 2,000 residents with costly new building requirements or limitations, she pondered quitting her job. 

“When people get upset with the government, especially here, they complain to the office people,” said Ms. Smith, who is also treasurer of Three Forks, Montana, set near the confluence of three rivers that mark the start of the Missouri River. 

The city ultimately was able to secure a more than $4 million federal grant to help prepare for possible flooding — but only after it was turned down for a different resilience grant with no explanation, she said. 

As more federal funding becomes available to help communities deal with growing climate change-related flood risk, much of it has been steered to wealthier, coastal communities better able to manage the sometimes complex and time-consuming application processes, researchers say. 

That has left smaller inland cities like Ms. Smith’s struggling to prepare their residents for worsening floods, storms and other risks. 

“What’s required is almost out of reach for small communities,” said Ms. Smith, who spoke by phone from the western US city in between handling people trying to pay their water bills. 

“The smaller populations aren’t going to have the funds to get all the engineering (data) and everything that’s required to apply for these grants,” she said. 

Aware of such concerns, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is in the midst of reworking the program, known as Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC), to ease the burden on more rural and disadvantaged areas. 

Still, the challenges underscore how the United States is not immune to a long-time problem in the developing world: the difficulty in getting climate cash to communities most affected by global warming but often least equipped to access help. 

The issues are “very reminiscent” of those facing communities in poorer countries from Africa to Asia that have struggled to mobilize funds, said Clare Shakya, director of the climate change research group at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). 

“You’ve got the most capable always winning and therefore becoming even more capable” of winning competitive grants and undertaking resilience work, she said. 

“So you’re creating further unintended consequences of the most socially vulnerable falling out the bottom.” 

The US BRIC program marks a shift in attitude toward disaster relief for FEMA, which runs point for the US federal government’s response to major disasters such as hurricanes and floods. 

Rather than doling out money during or after a disaster, it awards funding on a rolling basis to help communities steel for climate impacts, paying for projects like stabilizing creek banks and upgrading water pipelines. 

FEMA is “thinking proactively,” said Kristin Smith, of Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group that has worked with Three Forks on resilience efforts. 

“I think what we know is it’s just a better use of tax dollars to help communities prepare for disasters rather than react,” she said. “BRIC really makes that possible.” 

But in 2020, 94% of the funding was set to flow to wealthier, coastal states, according to an analysis from Ms. Smith’s group. 

The ratio improved somewhat in 2021, but more rural, lower-capacity states are still being left out of the process, she said. 

BRIC is just one tool the Biden administration is using to help communities prepare themselves for climate change impacts — and hitting such resilience goals won’t happen overnight, FEMA spokesperson Jeremy Edwards said. 

“We are encouraged by the progress we have made to reach communities and people nationwide, with more inland states taking advantage of this program and nearly 50% of total funding being delivered to disadvantaged communities,” he said. 

In addition to staff shortages and capacity issues, the requirement that local governments foot up to 25% of the costs of work is another of the chief obstacles blocking access to cash for smaller, vulnerable towns, said Kyle Magyera of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association. 

Mr. Magyera’s nonprofit group helped Ashland County, in the north of the state, implement a disaster mitigation grant — secured from a different pool of federal funding — to study wetlands and flooding issues. 

“In addition to limited capacity, a lot of these communities don’t even have a computer, a tablet … there’s limited cell service,” he said. “No matter what, the towns are unlikely to have the resources themselves to pursue funding.” 

Globally, another major hindrance to getting climate financing where it needs to go is a failure by those delivering help to defer to local communities that have their own solutions in mind, said Shakya of the London research group. 

She pointed, for example, to a ward-level group in Kenya, working to manage drought. It invested in veterinary services after observing that sick cattle were among the first to die in dry periods. 

“What they really needed was healthier cattle so they could be more resilient,” she said. “So their idea was entirely (out of) left field. I mean, no one would have come up with a veterinary diagnostic service as being a critical thing.” 

Despite its growing pains, BRIC has seen improvements and better geographic diversity in its most recent round of funding, said Anna Weber of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nonprofit environmental advocacy group. 

“Of course FEMA is … a really big ship and it turns pretty slowly,” she admitted. But she said she was confident those working on programs like BRIC “are dedicated to making positive change”. 

Ms. Weber noted that an explanatory statement accompanying a 2023 government spending bill, which became law in December, directs FEMA to allocate $1.5 million for each of the 50 US states for “capacity building.” 

“That is, we think, a really good step forward,” she said. “If the process wasn’t designed with you in mind, you are already starting behind everybody else.” 

To address capacity concerns, FEMA is also increasing the number of communities that can take advantage of direct technical assistance and boosting the federal cost share to 90% for socially vulnerable areas, according to the agency. 

As well, the infrastructure law President Biden signed in 2021 helped more than double available funding for BRIC to almost $2.3 billion in 2022. 

In the United States, federal disaster aid has historically been slow to reach lower-income populations and communities of color, which often bear the brunt of the damage from climate-fueled floods, wildfires and storms. 

Antoine Richards, of the nonprofit Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management, said he’s a fan of the intentions behind BRIC — but it hasn’t entirely lived up to its promise yet. 

“It’s tying into the fact that those who are wealthy or those who have the means or the capacity typically get the resources,” he said. Basically, “those with the most get the most.” — Thomson Reuters Foundation