Environmental Justice at FEMA

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Low-income communities and communities of color are often the most exposed to disasters, and the least able to recover after disasters strike. As climate change makes disasters more freuqent and severe, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will play an increasingly significant role in helping communities prepare and respond to disasters. However, current research shows that FEMA assistance often exacerbates wealth inequality, especially along lines of race, homeownership, and education, even after accounting for the impacts of disasters themselves.

FEMA leadership have committed to addressing inequities in their programs, particularly regarding how funding is allocated, and removing barriers that keep low-income communities and communities of color from accessing FEMA aid. Below, we track the agency’s public equity commitments, and progress made towards achieving those goals.

For more on FEMA’s authority to address inequities in its programs, see our report Equitable Disaster Relief: An Analysis of FEMA’s Legal Authority to Integrate Equity under the Stafford Act.

Public Participation

  • October 13: FEMA is seeking feedback from recent disaster survivors to help the agency “ensure historically underserved communities receive critical information that helps each person take steps to prepare themselves, their families, and their communities.” The public can submit comments here by Dec. 13, 2021.
  • October 12: FEMA publishes a Request For Information (RFI) seeking public comments on the National Flood Insurance Program’s minimum floodplain standards. Question 12 asks “what equity considerations should be factored into such decisions if climate change disproportionately harms underserved and vulnerable areas?” Read the RFI and submit comments here before December 13, 2021. Register to attend the virtual public meeting on November 15 from 3:30pm-5pm here.

Flood Insurance and Mitigation

  • November 15: Biden signs the Infrastructure Act, which includes $3.5 billion in funding for FEMA over the next five years for projects that improve resilience to flooding. For the first time, Congress creates financial incentives for the flood mitigation grants to go to communities based on income levels or social vulnerability. However, the criteria are sufficiently broad that households with annual incomes up to $150,000 would qualify. The flood mitigation program is one of 21 federal programs selected to pilot the Justice40 Initiative.
  • October: The Government Accountability Office (GAO) releases a report finding that FEMA fails to account for future flood risks due to climate change in its flood insurance rate maps (FIRMs) and invests less in mapping in areas with higher percentages of socially vulnerable populations.
  • September 8: FEMA launches a review of its Community Rating System (CRS), a program designed to provide flood insurance discounts for homeowners that strengthen protections against flood damage. The program has been criticized for favoring larger, wealthier communities.

Disaster Preparedness and Response

  • December 10: The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights investigates potential civil rights violations of FEMA’s response to Hurricanes Maria  and Harvey in 2017. At a hearing in Puerto Rico, the Commission raises concerns that FEMA’s practice of forcing homeowners to provide documents showing they own a home that was damaged in a disaster before receiving certain types of emergency assistance discriminates against Puerto Rico residents, where many homeowners do not have proof of title.
  • December 3: For the first time, FEMA will ask applicants seeking disaster relief under the Individual Assistance program to disclose their race, ethnicity, sex, marital status, education level, and tribal membership on a voluntary basis. FEMA plans to use the data to “evaluate, identify and remedy inequity-related issues within disaster assistance programs.” FEMA has not said whether it will make the data publicly available.
  • December 1: The US Commission on Civil Rights is investigating possible discrimination in the federal response to Hurricanes Maria and Harvey in 2017. The inquiry will assess responses led by FEMA and HUD. While the commission has no regulatory authority, the result of the investigation could prompt regulatory or legislative reforms. In June, the Commission held a virtual briefing on the issue, and in March, the Commission’s Texas Advisory Committee submitted a report describing how the federal government’s response to Harvey exacerbated racial and ethnic disparities in wealth, income, and housing. 
  • November 18: President Biden signs the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act which provides $6.8 billion to FEMA for climate change mitigation projects.
  • November 17: Advocates at FEMA’s Civil Rights Summit criticized the agency for unequal access to disaster relief and unnecessary barriers faced by low-income individuals and people of color. Criticisms included the Transitional Sheltering Assistance, which pays for short-term hotel stays for displaced survivors but often requires recipients to have a credit card, and BRIC funding which has recently gone towards larger, wealthier communities.
  • October 27: An official from the Government Accountability Office testifies before the House Homeland Security Committee that federal agencies (particularly FEMA, HUD, and the SBA) are failing to collect information that would help identify racial disparities and inequitable treatment among recipients of disaster aid.
  • October 25: Activists and lawmakers push to revamp Puerto Rico’s power system to incorporate solar power and other clean energy infrastructure due to the territory’s long struggle with disasters and power outages. However, as pointed out by Ruth Santiago, a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, the documents filed with FEMA surrounding the year’s electric infrastructure plan outline an expansion of gas infrastructure and no funds towards renewable energy projects. Santiago criticizes the plan as $9.6 taxpayer dollars wasted.
  • September 30: FEMA opens the fiscal year 2021 (FY 2021) application period for Hazard Mitigation Assistance (HMA), Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA), and the Building Resilience Infrastructure and CommunitieS (BRIC) programs. Applications are due by 3pm Eastern Time on January 28, 2022. See FEMA’s website for more resources and support materials for applying for BRIC funding.
  • September 9: FEMA expands the forms of documentation it will accept from applicants to prove occupancy or homeownership in applying for federal assistance. This policy change is in response to criticism that FEMA’s prior requirements were too narrow and excluded vulnerable communities from receiving federal assistance, particularly Black owners of heirs’ properties.
  • July 1: Advocates criticize FEMA’s selected grantees for the 2020 Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) funding cycle. The program’s largest grant of $50 million went to Menlo Park, California, headquarters for Facebook and Google. A study by Headwaters Economics found the majority of BRIC funds will go to coastal, metropolitan, and high-capacity communities. The rules for this round of BRIC funding were set under President Trump; a FEMA official noted in December, 2021 that the rules for the next round of funding have been changed.

Internal Equity Efforts

  • December: FEMA releases its 2022-2026 Strategic Plan, in which the first of three goals is to “Instill Equity as a Foundation of Emergency Management.” This goal includes diversifying FEMA’s workforce, recruiting in underrepresented communities, and investing in professional development in partnership with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium of Tribal Colleges and Universities. FEMA will also seek to address barriers to accessing FEMA assistance, and “counteract systemic disaster inequities” by “intentionally directing resources to communities most in need.”
  • October 28: FEMA announces the creation of a Climate Adaptation Enterprise Steering Group and a stakeholder engagement process to support the 2022-2026 Strategic Plan. The goals of these initiatives are to analyze how climate change increases natural hazards especially for underserved communities.
  • October 15: FEMA responds to the National Advisory Council’s November 2020 recommendations to incorporate equity into FEMA’s programming. In the memo, FEMA states that, among other efforts, the Council will release an equity standard in its 2021 report; is assessing barriers to achieving equitable outcomes in its various programs; and will create a program to “thread the concept of cultural humility” into the workforce, with a separate training program to address tribal nations’ government structures, heritage, and culture. However, many experts criticized FEMA’s response for not offering more concrete policies or solutions.
  • September 29: The Office of Inspector General releases a report instructing FEMA to improve its responses to sexual assault and misconduct. The report found that FEMA did not adequately address these issues in the workplace and that one third of employees surveyed had experienced sexual assault or misconduct but did not report it, believing that it would not be investigated.
  • August 17: FEMA announces the full launch of its National Risk Index, an online mapping tool to identify communities most at risk to natural hazards. The Index includes data resulting from natural hazards as well as social vulnerability and community resilience indicators. 
  • August 4-5: FEMA will host a Command and General Staff “Equity Stand Down” to train staff on civil rights law and how to enhance and incorporate equity into tactical decision-making.
  • July 21: FEMA announces the formation of an Equity Enterprise Steering Group and a “robust stakeholder engagement process” to develop the agency’s 2022-2026 Strategic Plan. The Steering Group will assess FEMA programs, and will be co-chaired by the Office of Equal Rights and the Office of Response and Recovery.
  • June 9: Secretary Mayorkas signs a revised environmental justice strategy for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The strategy outlines five goals: (1) expand Department-wide awareness of EJ considerations; (2) better integrate EJ principles ito mitigation, adaptation, and resilience programs; (3) strengthen community outreach; (4) expand collaboration with interagency partners; and (5) integrate EJ principles into DHS’s climate change initiatives.