Elizabeth Zimmerman, former FEMA associate administrator and director of disaster operations at FEMA’s Office of Response and Recovery, on the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program.
Elizabeth Zimmerman is the former FEMA associate administrator and deputy associate administrator for response and recovery from 2009 to 2017, where she led the response and recovery operations of 938 disasters. She has more than 30 years of experience in emergency management. She is now a senior executive advisor to IEM. Zimmerman responded to a series of written questions:
What is the focus for the new federal mitigation program, Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC), and what is it trying to address that existing grant programs were not accomplishing?
BRIC is expanding the concepts of pre-disaster mitigation by prioritizing the building of resilient infrastructure to make communities better prepared to withstand the next disaster, ahead of the disaster occurring and increasing community capacity.
It will provide incentives for states to work with local communities to identify their most pressing hazards and encourage innovative solutions for building a culture of preparedness at all levels. Overall, this is part of a greater recognition that we must do more than just respond and recover from disasters, we must focus on mitigation given the reality of more frequent and severe disasters.
What is the formula for identifying how funds will be identified as being made available to fund the grant program, and how much grant money do you expect will be generated annually — on average?
The money comes from a 6 percent set-aside of FEMA’s disaster recovery programs’ obligations of the previous year from the Disaster Relief Fund. BRIC will receive a steady funding stream rather than relying on annual congressional appropriations. FEMA estimates that the program will be funded at $300 million to $500 million per year, with significantly greater amounts of money in years that have a high number of catastrophic disaster obligations. The federal/nonfederal match is expected to be 75/25, with possible exceptions for smaller, low-income communities.
How does this grant funding compare in size and flexibility to the existing “post-disaster” mitigation funding? What are the differences?
We won’t know specifics of the rules for BRIC until FEMA publishes them sometime in early 2020. But here’s what we do know. The Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP), or post-disaster mitigation funding program, will still be in place to benefit states, tribes, territories and local communities following a presidential disaster declaration. The funding for it also comes from the Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) as 15 percent (20 percent for holders of an Enhanced Mitigation Plan) of that one specific disaster’s costs. For HMGP, the grantee prioritizes the projects to be funded and selects projects from within their boundaries.
BRIC was created as Section 1234 of the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018, which will replace the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program. BRIC is built upon lessons learned from that program. BRIC is funded based on a formula of obligations from the DRF from the previous year for all active disasters, not just one disaster. The percentage for BRIC is 6 percent and is available nationwide.
Another difference is when the funding is available, BRIC is pre-disaster versus HMGP is post-disaster.
How are the rules made for a grant program like this? What is the process for rulemaking and who are the key players?
There is a process for rulemaking for the federal government. It takes time and has several layers to it. The key is quickly getting input from the stakeholders for the program and begin engagement with the various federal offices that review the rules throughout the process, start early to gain buy-in for the rules. FEMA held numerous listening sessions for stakeholders to provide their ideas and feedback on concepts, that ended in July 2019. The key players are the whole community … all levels of government; private, nonprofit organizations; private sector; and any entity that has incurred damages from a disaster or that has a disaster risk.
What do you anticipate will be the biggest challenge for state and local emergency management leaders in relationship to obtaining the funding, and then appropriately allocating and administering the grant program?
The first challenge is awareness. State and local governments need to know this is coming down the line and prepare now so that they can take advantage. There is a natural hesitancy sometimes with new programs to just rely on the old way of doing business or to take a “wait and see” approach. While there may be a slight learning curve, governments should take advantage of any resources available to help them be smarter about mitigation.
BRIC is expected to be competitive, that is another challenge. It will favor risk-based approaches and will emphasize projects that build a community’s capability and capacity to manage emergencies and buy down the impacts and risk from future disasters. BRIC is expected to favor projects that have whole community partnerships and look at the bigger picture. States, tribes, territories will need to develop and build those partnerships. BRIC has administrative cost allowances, similar to PDM and HMGP. At the same time, another aim of the program is to reduce the complexity of applying for grants and reduce Request for Information issuances.
What recommendations do you have for meshing the pre-and post-disaster mitigation grant programs? For instance, would you try to keep both efforts completely separate, such as using one grant for a specific purpose and the other for a different category or type of work?
The goal of all mitigation programs is to create a resilient community that is best accomplished by individual communities having a strong hazard mitigation plan based on their own risk assessment. Never lose sight of the big picture and what you do. How you get there may vary and may be complex, but we owe it to our communities to take action.
Unless the funding cycle for both programs was aligned and the BRIC rules established a way for them to work together, it would be very difficult to mesh the programs for one project. Both programs have a cost share component and the federal share for either of them could not be used for the other program. Any and all money spent on mitigation is many more dollars saved on recovery.
Lastly, you led FEMA’s recovery efforts for a number of years, and recovery planning for a number of years. Recovery planning that goes beyond the standard FEMA grant programs has not been done by most state and local jurisdictions. What tips can you share with state and local emergency managers about recovery planning and how it differs from disaster response planning?
The first step to recovery planning is to know it starts now, before the disaster strikes. We published the first National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF) in September 2011 and fully implemented it during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It has been used in most disasters as the basis for bringing the whole community together for a holistic recovery for them. The key to the NDRF is for states, tribes, territories, local governments, private nonprofits, private sector and individuals to realize recovery takes everyone working together for their outcomes, it goes way beyond what FEMA can provide them.
Communities can use the NDRF as a starting point for developing their own recovery plan or framework. Their plan has to work for their community. The sooner communities start their recovery planning, the more expeditious their next recovery from a disaster will be for them.
Several states, tribes, territories and local governments have developed their own recovery plans, but as you say, many, many more need to begin the process.
The focus of Response Plans is life-saving, life-sustaining in those moments, hours, days, immediately following a disaster versus ... the focus of the Recovery Plan is to rebuild your community so that its economy and infrastructure are re-established. You want to have children back in school, business open, people living their lives as they did before the event. Each community needs to have their own definition of “recovered.”
Disasters are not going to stop. The planet is changing, and there are decades of poor land use decisions and outdated building codes to deal with. We must face those vulnerabilities head-on and plan a safer, more resilient future. BRIC is a huge step in the right direction and the nation will be better for it.
Eric Holdeman is senior fellow and contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine. He also blogs at www.disaster-zone.com