Impact of new FEMA climate change rules unclear

Posted April 10, 2015

A caution flag flies at Kill Devil Hills following Hurricane Arthur.

— Emergency management officials say they're not sure yet how North Carolina will be affected by new federal rules forcing all states to account for climate change as they prepare for natural disasters.

In March, the Federal Emergency Management Agency released new policies requiring each state's hazard mitigation plan to include the projected impacts of a warming climate, such as stronger storms, higher sea levels and heat waves. The plans, which identify risks and establish strategies for future natural disasters, require FEMA approval before states can receive certain types of funding.

The federal rules won't go into effect until March 2016, giving all states about a year to examine their plans and work with federal officials to ensure they comply. However, they will issue an ultimatum to the leaders of some states that have traditionally dismissed climate change: Acknowledge the impacts of rising global temperatures or miss out on millions of disaster planning dollars.

North Carolina officials have drawn criticism in the past for their stance on climate change impacts, especially sea level rise. Initial versions of 2012 legislation drew widespread mockery for restricting the types of modeling used to plan the future of coastal communities. The version that eventually became law backed away from that position but delayed the adoption of new models with more scientific support for four years.

Meanwhile, the most recent version of the state's sea level rise report, drafted by scientists and coastal engineers, shows a range of scenarios that indicate seas will see accelerated rise between 1.9 inches and 10.6 inches along the entire coast during the next 30 years.

For his part, Gov. Pat McCrory, who according to the new federal guidelines would have adopt the new mitigation plan, has largely sidestepped the issue.

All states, including North Carolina, have mitigation plans approved by FEMA under current federal guidelines, which were last revised in 2008. Officials at the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management say they've already begun discussions with FEMA and will analyze the new requirements before making any changes.

"It's important to work this way so we reach the right conclusions the first time," Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry said in a statement. "North Carolina has a solid history and reputation for disaster preparedness, response and recovery, and we see nothing that prevents that track record from continuing for years to come."

But state officials say it's not clear yet what changes, if any, they'll need to make or what types of federal disaster funding are contingent on the plans.

"What we're trying to do at this point is figure out exactly what does this say," Julia Jarema, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety, said. "It doesn't affect all the different pots of money from FEMA, but it does affect some."

Gavin Smith, an associate research professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and executive director of the UNC Center for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters, said North Carolina won't be alone in trying to interpret the new rules over the next year. Another open question is just how stringent federal officials will be.

But he said one thing is clear: States will have to officially incorporate climate change into their hazard planning.

"If they don't deal with it, then there are vulnerable states like North Carolina, Florida and Texas that could stand to leave hundreds of millions of dollars – even billions – on the table in the aftermath of disasters," Smith said. "That's real money."

The new FEMA rules could also mean real changes.

One of his recent studies examining the quality of local and state hazard mitigation plans in the late 2000s found few of them actually noted climate change. Researchers also found a disconnect between the plans and actual policies meant to prevent or reduce disaster risks.

Smith said it's unclear whether the new FEMA rules signal a more aggressive federal approach to disaster planning that would filter down to the states – especially without specific policies in place. Even though details remain to be worked out, he said the incorporation of climate change effects can be a good thing for states bracing for stronger hurricanes, more frequent flooding and other natural hazards.

"I'm very heartened that the federal administration is looking at this," he said.

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  • John Lobenstein Nov 18, 2015
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    The federal rules won't go into effect until March 2016, giving all states about a year to examine their plans and work with federal officials to ensure they comply"
    December 2015 - March 2016 is only 4 months from now.