Climate Change, Cat 6 Hurricanes and FEMA’s Funding Response

March 05, 2024
By Melanie Stern

Collaboration is the crux of global cooperation toward mitigating climate change and the associated risks to supply chains that adversely affect the fabricated and natural resources needed to support livelihood. This meeting of the minds does not come without its share of confrontation: a precursor to resolve or failure.

Recent escalations of extreme weather events have brought a greater sense of urgency from regulators and agencies across the globe. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stated there were more than 80 declared disasters across all 10 FEMA regions from August 17, 2022, through January 30.

In response, the Biden administration expanded existing relief provisions through its net-zero project funding, benefiting people rebuilding from damage and losses experienced by disasters declared as of mid-August 2022. The rebuild efforts will support net-zero infrastructure and buildings dedicated to serving communities during brownouts, blackouts and extreme temperatures promoting greater health, safety and welfare of constituents.

The program continues to receive new layers of protection. In March 2023, FEMA’s net-zero project funding integrated low-carbon construction materials eligibility, aligning with the larger goal in realizing net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. But are the efforts belated?

Category 6 Has Arrived

Since its 1970 inception, developed by civil engineer Herbert Saffir and meteorologist Robert Simpson director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center, the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale serves as an early warning system for officials to better prepare for natural disasters and the resulting emergencies and damage to come.

The scale initially “graded” storm severity on wind speed alone, adding sea, lake and overland surges from hurricanes (SLOSH) to its measurement some years later. These included such factors as atmospheric pressure, size, forward speed and track data. As storm intensity has grown with time, new findings published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recommended an extension to the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale.  

Deborah Brosnan, Ph.D., president and founder of Washington D.C. science-based global environmental risk solutions provider Deborah Brosnan & Associates, says some experts have concerns about keeping measurements to just five categories.

“We may underestimate the potential risks from a hurricane or typhoon with winds over 192 mph,” she says. The hurricane scale categorization consists of 1 to 5 categories, escalating in severity from a minimal hurricane, reaching major hurricane status from categories 3 to 5.

Brosnan, and others, believe current measurements do not meet with past decade’s storm velocity and scale, requiring the addition of a Category 6. “Climate models indicate more intense, rather than more frequent storms. With the way the ocean is warming, this is a major concern. Since 2013, five Pacific storms had winds over 192 mph which would put them in a category 6,” she says.

The argument for a higher category is not just about wind speed but about ensuring communities take the threat seriously and disaster management personnel are fully prepared, she adds.

Purple Heat Down Under

As sea surface temperatures and sea levels rise, so do extreme weather-related risks like coastal storms. Likewise, the damage they cause intensifies. Extreme heat is taking its toll on global populations, from urban centers to emerging nations.

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology expanded its color-coding weather map, adding purple as an indicator of extreme heat. Brosnan concurs with the heat measurement addendum, saying that countries need more ways to notify people of hazardous heat conditions, “as more data helps drive action.”

Heat-related deaths are increasing across the U.S., Brosnan says, with “250 million to 300 million people living in 318 urban environments experiencing extreme temperatures above 95 degrees each summer.”

For those residing in less populated areas or in regions without modern-day infrastructure and cooling equipment, extreme heat can prove more perilous.

After the Fact Matters

Would-be recipients of disaster relief funds often decry the process of extended delays, lack of responsiveness, slow receipt of payments and an endless sea of red tape, delaying closure of their traumatic experiences — good intentions inhabited by inefficiencies.

While FEMA positioned its funding of post-disaster net-zero energy projects as “the single most effective measure” to simultaneously reduce GHG emissions and address the climate crisis, communities stricken by extreme weather’s effects may wonder why preventative action happens after damage has occurred.

“It’s important to remember that FEMA is traditionally a ‘responsive’ agency rather than a proactive one,” Brosnan says. However, its new willingness to invest in net zero infrastructure and incentivize climate resilience is, she adds, “a huge and positive step,” enabling people and businesses to build back stronger.

As of January 30, updates to three of FEMA’s grant programs — public assistance, hazard mitigation, and building resilient infrastructure and communities —provide funding of net-zero energy projects for the rebuilding of schools, hospitals, fire stations and other infrastructure damaged or destroyed by a disaster.

Eligible projects further reduce utility- and disaster-related costs while increasing energy use reliability, and include passive heating and cooling systems, certified high-performance appliances, heat pumps and solar microgrids.

Greater New Orleans, Inc. is a supporter of the federal grant eligible use expansion, and public policy director Peter Waggonner says FEMA’s public assistance program only allowed for replacement of facilities and equipment to meet the standards and conditions present at the time of the storm. “Sometimes, that’s impossible and counterproductive to improving and mitigating for the future,” he says.

The Remaining Undone

For some, post-disaster resiliency hangs in the balance of funds yet to be paid. Although the public assistance program generally reimburses grant recipients 75 percent of rebuild and repair costs, the state, local, tribal and territorial governments are responsible for what remains.

There are other resources available, though the pathway can be riddled with socioeconomic holes. Bond revenues may provide some relief, when available. There are pools of money in some states that are dedicated to non-federal cost share assistance and allocated for that balance, Waggonner says, but it doesn’t apply to each jurisdiction, as some are more well-funded than others.

Often, the areas afflicted by extreme weather events have a “smaller tax base or communities unable to pay their taxes or people spending less, affecting businesses, reducing local sales tax collection,” he says.

Waggonner points to the importance of having programs that break the perpetual cycles of loss and risk by integrating sustainable-centric systems. “When we talk about targeted investments, there are recommended ratios. I’ve seen 1 to 6 or 1 to 7 — one dollar put toward mitigation now will save you money in the long run.”

Beyond calculating the cost of climate change to large population centers, Waggonner advises including large economic assets and infrastructure essential to the national economy when weighing those expenses. “For example. we have six Class I railroads moving through New Orleans,” he says. “All it takes to instigate severe disruption is a downed tree or wire, adversely impacting national and international economies.”

Politics Aside

Public perception about the link between climate change and the need for sustainable practices is increasing, though Brosnan cautions that more acceptance is needed to ingratiate transformative action.

“The awareness is growing. People are experiencing the impacts of climate change daily, affecting how they live with the hazards and disasters impacting their communities in new ways,” she says. Brosnan suggests that by focusing on the consequences experienced post-disaster and discussing the cause and effect of carbon emissions, understanding climate change and its impact can drive solutions, instead of politics.

Grant programs are beneficial, Waggonner adds, but a more comprehensive climate change investment coalition, strategy or collective is needed, bringing everyone on the same page at the national level, “incentivizing risk mitigation with the necessary resources to ease those risks,” he says.

(Photo credit: Getty Images/Daniel Fela)

About the Author

Melanie Stern

About the Author

Melanie Stern is Manager, Communications at Institute for Supply Management®.