Sea level rise and extreme weather events—both intensified by climate change—can create significant risks for municipalities. Across the country, communities are in the process of preparing for what’s to come by creating hazard mitigation plans and assessing infrastructure vulnerability. In addition, recent severe weather events have created a shifting regulatory landscape as lawmakers and regulatory agencies begin reevaluating their approach to mandating readiness. Understanding the ways climate change and severe weather are shaping existing and forthcoming regulatory programs is essential in order for municipalities to increase resiliency and plan for future events.
Reducing long-term risk
Hazard mitigation planning is a fundamental building block of storm resiliency and as part of the Disaster Mitigation Act, all states are required to have an approved hazard mitigation plan in place in order to receive any funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Beyond the legal requirement to have one, though, hazard mitigation plans are inherently beneficial at the local level. According to FEMA, over 23,000 communities nationwide have FEMA-approved or approvable-pending-adoption local multi-hazard mitigation plans, and for good reason.
Hazard mitigation planning enables communities to identify the most cost-effective measures to reduce or eliminate the risks from hazards like extreme weather events. One of the main components of a comprehensive plan is a focus on reducing repetitive losses from damaging events that tend to affect the same locations frequently. To create an effective plan, municipalities should establish an in-depth understanding of their local geography and identify areas with natural features that could pose a substantial risk. Some of these could lie on a jurisdictional boundary, or cross over into another municipality, in which case, cooperating with neighboring communities is necessary to ensure that a mitigation strategy exists for the area and that prevention efforts aren’t being duplicated.
In March, FEMA released a new State Mitigation Plan Review Guide, which will go into effect in March 2016. The new guidelines require that states applying for disaster preparedness funds must have hazard mitigation plans that take changing environmental and climate conditions into account. This is part of a larger focus on increasing resiliency and comes from the idea that understanding local climate vulnerabilities will help states and municipalities to prioritize their preparation efforts. It also ensures that the most useful tools and approaches for safeguarding those vulnerabilities are identified in advance of a destructive severe weather event.
Changing regulations at the federal and state level
In order to create an effective mitigation plan, local officials have to understand what new regulations require of them. On the federal level, Executive Order 13690—instated in January of this year—defines three methods for establishing flood elevation and hazard areas: adding 2-3 feet of elevation to the 100-year floodplain, using the 500-year floodplain, or referring to the best available science-based data and practices. After Hurricane Sandy, it was recommended that the federal government introduce a national flood risk reduction standard for projects funded by taxpayer money, and all federal floodplain investments must now abide by the guidelines defined by this executive order.
New York, New Jersey, and Vermont are just a few of the many states that have begun building climate change considerations into statewide policies. In 2014, Governor Cuomo of New York signed a new law requiring state agencies to take storm surges, flooding, and sea level rise into account when making regulatory decisions. New York is also adopting official sea level rise projections that will help communities incorporate climate-change risks into local laws while ensuring that state funds are available for projects with a focus on mitigating risks from extreme weather. New Jersey is considering improved infrastructure standards that would flood-proof water and wastewater treatment systems and pump stations across the state, and Vermont enacted flood resiliency requirements last year that discourage new developments and mitigate existing risks in recognized flood hazard areas.
A thorough understanding of the applicable regulations is necessary for storm resiliency planning. For many, changing policies might affect the traditional hazard mitigation planning process or require new climate resiliency projects. To better prepare, municipalities can benefit from reviewing building codes to consider potential climate change impacts, conducting regional studies to understand current risks, and working with neighboring communities to form regional planning groups that can identify adaptation strategies for the area. Severe weather poses a threat to all regions of the country, and no community should be caught unprepared.