Environmental Justice at the Federal Emergency Management Agency

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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, research shows that FEMA assistance often exacerbates the racial wealth gap, even after accounting for the impacts of disasters themselves.

FEMA leadership have committed to addressing inequities in the agency’s programs, particularly regarding how funding is allocated, and removing barriers that keep low-income communities and communities of color from accessing FEMA aid. As of July 15, 2022, four FEMA programs are covered under the President’s Justice40 Initiative, meaning 40% of the benefits from those programs must go to “disadvantaged communities.” Those programs are Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) competitive grants; Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA) competitive grants, including the Swift Current Initiative; FEMA Risk Mapping, Assessment and Planning; and the Regional Catastrophic Preparedness Grant Program.

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

Flood Insurance and Mitigation

For more information on federal flood insurance and FEMA’s role, check out EELP’s CleanLaw podcast episode on Fixing the National Flood Insurance Program with Joel Scata and Hannah Perls.

  • June 22, 2022: An internal watchdog report finds that FEMA ignored equity for over three decades in allocating $1.75 billion in buyout grants, which helps communities purchase and demolish flood-prone properties. In the report, FEMA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) urges the agency to “prioritiz[e] equity across the program” by ensuring states consider race, nationality, economic status, and other information when making buyout grant decisions.
  • April 26, 2022: A new report from RedFin shows that 81% of federal flood insurance policyholders will see their premiums rise due to changes under Risk Rating 2.0. “Majority-Hispanic” neighborhoods are more likely to see their premiums increase than any other ethnic or racial neighborhood group. The report is based on zip-code level flood insurance policy data and census data on income and ethnicity.
  • Apr. 1, 2022: FEMA’s new risk calculation tool for the National Flood Insurance Program, Risk Rating 2.0: Equity in Action, goes into effect for current policyholders. FEMA began applying the tool to new policyholders on Oct. 1, 2022. Under Risk Rating 2.0, FEMA will now calculate flood risk on a property-by-property basis rather than using flood insurance rate maps (FIRMs), and for the first time, will make premiums proportional to the replacement value of the home. PEW estimates 1.2 million out of more than 5 million policyholders will see their premiums immediately decrease. For more information on the National Flood Insurance Program and Risk Rating 2.0, listen to EELP’s CleanLaw podcast episode on Fixing the National Flood Insurance Program.
  • Feb. 15, 2022: FEMA, NOAA, NASA, EPA, USGS, DHS, ACE, and DOD release the 2022 Sea Level Rise Technical Report which finds that, over the next 30 years, US coastline sea levels are projected to rise, on average, 10-12 inches. Coastal communities will face and are already facing negative impacts such as compromised infrastructure, water shortages, food insecurity, and increases in rates of heat-related morbidity, and with vanishing coastal lands, some people will be left with nowhere to go.
  • Nov. 15, 2021: 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.
  • Oct. 2021: 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.
  • Sep. 8, 2021: 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

  • Feb. 25, 2022: FEMA issues the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities Policy, effective Apr. 26, 2022. Key changes from the previous policy include a new principle to “promote equity, including by helping members of disadvantaged groups and prioritizing 40 percent of the benefits to disadvantaged communities,” consistent with the administration’s Justice40 Initiative. FEMA also broadened its definition of “small impoverished communities” by deleting the unemployment metric previously required.
  • Dec. 17, 2021: FEMA, USDA, and DOI announce the creation of a joint Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission to recommend federal policies to prevent, mitigate, and manage wildland fires. The commission was created under the bipartisan infrastructure law and will include representation from federal, state, tribal, county, and municipal governments and private industry stakeholders.
  • Dec. 10, 2021: 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.
  • Dec. 3, 2021: 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.
  • Dec. 1, 2021: 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. 
  • Nov. 18, 2021: President Biden signs the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act which provides $6.8 billion to FEMA for climate change mitigation projects.
  • Nov. 17, 2021: 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.
  • Oct. 27, 2021: 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.
  • Oct. 25, 2021: 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.
  • Sep. 30, 2021: 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 Jan. 28, 2022. See FEMA’s website for more resources and support materials for applying for BRIC funding.
  • Sep. 9, 2021: 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, 2021: 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.

Funding Opportunities

Internal Equity Efforts

  • Nov. 1, 2022: FEMA appoints 16 new members and three returning members to the National Advisory Council. Jeff Hansen, Director of Community Safety for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and former vice chair of the council, will be the first Tribal representative to serve as council chair. The council will expand from 35 to 40 members in 2023, adding positions specific to climate change. On Oct. 27, 2022, the Choctaw Nation hosts the National Advisory Council meeting, marking the first time a Tribal Nation hosts the annual council meeting since the council was established in 2006.
  • Aug. 22, 2022: FEMA releases its new 2022-2026 National Tribal Strategy identifying agency actions to address the agency’s responsibilities to federally recognized Tribal Nations and identify actions to build, enhance, and sustain its relationships with tribes.
  • July 15, 2022: FEMA releases an initial list of programs covered under the Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative: the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) and Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA) competitive annual grant programs, as well as the FEMA Risk Mapping, Assessment and Planning (RMAP), and Regional Catastrophic Preparedness Grant Program. Both BRIC and FMA provide Hazard Mitigation Assistance to state, local, tribal, and territorial governments. The commitment will also cover the new Swift Current Initiative, which seeks to distribute flood mitigation assistance more quickly for repetitively flooded and substantially damaged properties under the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). 
  • May 24, 2022: FEMA’s flood insurance division will now require employees and contractors to undergo “unconscious bias” training to help prevent discrimination in the handling of flood insurance claims. 
  • Apr. 14, 2022: FEMA releases its first ever Equity Action Plan as part of its implementation of Executive Order 13985. The plan highlights seven new strategies to advance equity: promoting small business participation in FEMA contracts; expanding public assistance by prioritizing the needs of high risk, under-resourced communities; promoting equitable outcomes for disaster survivors; building the resilience of nonprofit organizations; supporting at-risk communities in planning and mitigating hazards; closing the flood insurance gap; and investing in resources to advance civil rights. See a summary of FEMA’s Equity Action Plan here.
  • Dec. 2021: For the second year in a row, FEMA’s National Advisory Council’s December report finds that FEMA disaster funds exacerbate wealth inequality through assistance that disproportionately benefits higher-income households, while “those that started with less receive disproportionately less.” The Council makes several recommendations, including providing technical experts to help high-need communities apply for FEMA grants, and urging FEMA to automatically give emergency aid to people in counties where a disaster has been declared, rather than waiting for the Governor to request individual assistance.
  • Dec. 2021: 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.”
  • Oct. 28, 2021: 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.
  • Oct. 15, 2021: 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.
  • Sep. 29, 2021: 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.
  • Aug. 17, 2021: 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. 
  • Aug. 4-5, 2021: 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, 2021: 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, 2021: 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.