This post was written by Sarah McKearnan, Senior Policy Advisor at the Agency of Natural Resources’ Department of Environmental Conservation.
Tropical Storm Irene was transformative for our small state. The recovery was long and arduous, and Vermonters now understand that as our climate changes we will have to brace ourselves for more frequent severe storms. Out of disaster came a strong determination to fortify our resilience.
We are witnessing a similar transformation at the federal level. During President Obama’s first term, a spate of record-setting disasters – from Super Storm Sandy to monstrous tornadoes and historic droughts – prompted the President to focus on how the federal government can better support communities across America as we prepare for climate change impacts.
Last November, President Obama established a national Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, and appointed Governor Peter Shumlin to participate along with seven other Governors, county commissioners, tribal leaders, and mayors from municipalities as small as Greensburg Kansas (population 800) and as large as Los Angeles (population 4 million).
The charge to these leaders: Provide recommendations to the Administration on how to help states and cities build climate resilience. The Administration wants to know which new policies could work, how to launch new and better partnerships, what kind of climate data they are missing, and more.
In our state we’ve had to recover from at least one federally declared disaster every year for the past decade. We see many ways that federal agencies could better help us both prevent, and bounce back from, damage caused by river flooding and erosion.
For example, take our efforts to make culverts more flood-ready. Irene damaged nearly a thousand of these structures. Having learned a valuable lesson about the perils of under-sizing them, we applied for federal grants to rebuild them so they would withstand extreme weather and flooding in the future. However, the outdated federal grant rules stood directly in the way of this effort to invest a little more now to prevent rebuilding repeatedly later. Overhauling federal recovery programs to be more forward looking would help states across the country that are dealing with a wide range of climate impacts.
Vermont jumped into the Task Force process with both feet. Along with Governor Shumlin, a team of Vermont state agency leaders and staff participated. When the final meeting took place at the White House this July, our team was pleased to learn that the Administration is moving forward with early action steps before a final report lands in the Oval Office. Three action steps that come with potential funding for Vermont are:
- Nearly $1 billion for a National Disaster Resilience Competition. The Department of Housing and Urban Development will provide grants to plan for and implement forward-looking recovery and resilience actions that reduce the risks from extreme weather in the future.
- Green infrastructure initiative. EPA is forming a new intra-agency collaborative to support broader use of green infrastructure across the country, with grants available for replicable and innovative projects.
- New mapping initiative. The U.S Geological Survey is announcing a $13.1 million 3D Elevation Program (3DEP) partnership that will bring Federal agencies and other public and private partners together to develop advanced three-dimensional data for mapping climate-related hazards.
The Task Force is now beginning its final work to produce a report for the President, due in November. The Vermont team has advocated for some key overarching priorities, including:
- Promote Resilient Development. Align programs in all federal agencies with the goal of building and rebuilding with resilience by developing more consistent requirements and funding incentives for building in smart places, and for protecting areas of the landscape that slow and reduce flooding, like floodplains, wetlands and undeveloped coastal shores.
- Improve Partnerships. Encourage federal agencies to build a stronger culture of partnership and service to communities and states impacted by disaster.
- Support Planning for Resilience. Support and provide incentives for long range resilience planning to prevent and prepare for climate impacts in all communities, especially in areas with vulnerable populations.
By participating in the Task Force, the Vermont team learned of many extraordinary and innovative approaches to building resilience around the country. We could follow in Maryland’s footsteps to create a set of Coast Smart siting and design guidelines for buildings in flood zones; or we could follow Hoboken’s lead and train disaster response volunteers to help the elderly and other vulnerable people when disaster strikes.
We need to learn everything we can about preparing for climate change. As the President said so pointedly, “our planet is changing in ways that will have a profound impact on all of humankind. Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel better, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm.”