The Biden administration announced on Thursday a record injection of money to help communities gird against the effects of climate change, as disasters continue to pummel the United States.
The new funds — $3.5 billion in grants to states to protect against floods, wildfires and other threats — mark a shift in United States disaster policy as climate change gets worse: Rather than smaller, more targeted investments, the government is throwing huge sums of money at disaster preparation as fast as it can.
“The risks that we are seeing from climate change are the crisis of our generation,” Deanne Criswell, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is administering the money, said in an interview.
The goal of the new money is to get local and state officials to broaden their approach to put less emphasis on small-scale projects that fortify individual homes or buildings, and more attention on ways to protect entire communities, she said.
“We’ve had a very incremental approach to how we’ve been doing climate risk mitigation,” Ms. Criswell said. “We really want to start to shift the focus.”
The announcement is the latest example of federal money going toward climate resilience and adaptation at levels that would have previously been hard to imagine.
In May, President Biden said he would double funding, to $1 billion, for another FEMA program — called Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities, or BRIC — which also gives state and local governments money for projects such as sea walls, drainage or helping people relocate away from vulnerable areas.
And a bipartisan infrastructure bill pending in Congress would provide tens of billions of dollars in climate resilience funding, the most in American history. That package includes an additional $1 billion for BRIC, and $3.5 billion for a separate flood-protection program at FEMA.
The explosion of new money reflects the growing toll that climate change is putting on communities around the country.
Starting with a string of hurricanes and wildfires in 2017, the United States has suffered devastating disasters every year since: Hurricane Michael wiping out towns in the Florida panhandle in 2018, Midwest flooding in 2019, and a record 12 major storms making landfall in 2020. Last year, 22 disasters that struck the country each caused at least $1 billion in damage — another record.
The new willingness to spend heavily also reflects the growing toll on the federal budget. Between 2005 and 2019 alone, the federal government spent almost half a trillion dollars on disaster assistance, according to the Government Accountability Office, which considers climate change a threat to the government’s financial health.
Spending more money to protect homes and communities ahead of disasters, rather than after they happen, could reduce those costs, studies suggest. A dollar spent to prepare for disaster saves an average of $6 dollars later, according to federal research.
The new spending is possible because of a quirk in federal rules, which let FEMA direct a portion of disaster money — usually about 15 percent — toward grants to states for projects that reduce the impact of future disasters. Those so-called hazard mitigation grants don’t require approval from Congress.
In a typical year, that formula usually generates about $1 billion in grants, according to Roy Wright, a senior FEMA official during the Obama and Trump administrations.
But the coronavirus pandemic radically changed those numbers. To help states cope with the effects of the virus, the federal government declared disasters — a step usually reserved for physical disasters like hurricanes or wildfires — in every state, then used those declarations to provide tens of billions of dollars in assistance.
As a side effect of the government channeling that Covid assistance through FEMA, the agency was able to count the rush of new money toward its formula for hazard mitigation grants.
The new grant money will be divided by state, based on the amount of Covid aid each received. Texas will get the most money, $666 million, followed by California ($484 million), New York ($378 million), Florida ($185 million) and New Jersey ($149 million).
FEMA has faced growing criticism for failing to ensure that racial minorities and other underserved communities receive an equitable share of disaster funds. A growing body of research shows that Black disaster victims often get less money than white victims, even when they suffer the same amount of damage.
The agency needs to push states to spend that money in ways that help underserved communities, as well as seeking innovative ways to increase resilience, said Mr. Wright, who is now president of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, an industry-funded group that looks at how to reduce damage from disasters.
“This is the biggest investment in climate resilience we have ever seen from the federal government,” Mr. Wright said. “It needs to change how the nation approaches this.”
Ms. Criswell, the FEMA administrator, said the agency has no legal authority to tell states how to prioritize their hazard mitigation grants among different communities. But she said her staff would “work really closely” with state officials to encourage them to take equity into account.