When disaster strikes, the impacts are immediate. Vulnerable communities experience damages to homes, businesses, and critical infrastructure. In the days after a disaster, local and state governments—supported by groups like FEMA, US Army Corps of Engineers, the National Guard, the American Red Cross, and local non-profits—assist with the initial response by providing emergency funding, food, shelter, and medical assistance. When the president declares a federal disaster, certain funds become immediately available while other long-term recovery funds require Congress to appropriate additional assistance. Regardless of the disaster, the available resources are never enough to address all damages and the timeline for recovery is always too long.
And what happens when disaster strikes again? The reality is that as communities tackle the impacts of one disaster, they must simultaneously prepare to face new threats. Each year, more communities are at risk of experiencing increasingly intense and more frequent storm events. 2020 has seen both the largest wildfire season recorded in California’s history and the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record.
New mitigation funding aims to break the cycle of disaster and reconstruction by implementing meaningful solutions that reduce the loss of life and property and minimize the impact of disasters. Federal funding sources like FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) and HUD’s Community Development Block Grant Mitigation (CDBG-MIT) represent new opportunities for eligible state and local governments to carry out long-term, strategic, and high-impact activities to mitigate disaster risks and reduce future losses.
This article discusses the genesis of these two funding sources, their differences and similarities, how some communities can utilize both grants simultaneously, and what these new funding sources can do for the future of mitigation.
The origin of new mitigation funding
When discussing mitigation and resiliency, communities must look to the future. They must figure out how they can use existing funding to address future risks and generate community-wide consensus to implement tangible solutions now in order to mitigate future impacts.
Our nation’s need to look to the future was made clear by a growing number of communities’ devastating and lengthy recoveries following major disasters. Recovery is costly and burdensome for survivors, businesses, and government agencies implementing local, state, and federal grant programs, and can permanently change communities. The recovery process after a major disaster can take a decade or more, and the lingering costs of recovery are often compounded by such long-term impacts as a decline in residents’ physical and mental health, permanent business closures, and loss of tax base or revenue.
The number of annual billion-dollar events experienced in the U.S. is increasing on average, with more than twice the number experienced during the 2010s than the 2000s decade. This increase in events, combined with FEMA’s published finding that natural hazard mitigation saves $6 on average for every $1 spent on federal mitigation grants, has motivated Congress, FEMA, and HUD to develop solutions aimed at breaking the disaster-recovery-disaster cycle: FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) and HUD’s Community Development Block Grant Mitigation (CDBG-MIT) programs.
Congress’s passage of Section 1234 of the Disaster Recovery Program Act (DRRA) of 2018 amended Section 203 of the Stafford Act. The legislation addresses the rise in the cost of disasters and the reform of federal disaster programs. With DRRA Section 1234, Congress required FEMA to establish new mitigation funding through the BRIC program and discontinue the annual Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) grant program. Both programs provide funding for mitigation projects that reduce future risks to lives and structures; FEMA’s BRIC program, however, will allow communities to increase their options when it comes to proactively implementing resiliency solutions. With this program, FEMA is looking for a return on its investment in identified vulnerable communities.
Annual funding for PDM was relatively small and variable in nature, which made it a challenge to predict what mitigation results could be achieved. By replacing PDM, BRIC looks to establish a more reliable stream of funding. To determine the funds allocated by the BRIC program, FEMA will calculate the estimated aggregate amount of grants to be made under various sections of the Stafford Act and set aside 6% of that amount for the Disaster Relief Fund (DRF). Per the recent Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO), the BRIC allocation for the 2020-21 fiscal year is $500 million, which includes:
- $33.6 million for states and territories.
- $20 million for tribal governments.
- $446.4 million for a nationwide competition to determine fund allocation to eligible applicants (states, territories, and tribal governments).
The program will evaluate eligible activities based on criteria such as whether the plan is to build infrastructure, mitigate one of FEMA’s community lifelines, impact populations, reduce future risk, strengthen the capacity to administer mitigation programs, or coordinate with other entities. More information about the NOFO can be found here.
HUD has broadly defined mitigation activities as those activities that increase resilience to disasters and reduce or eliminate the long-term risk of loss of life, injury, damage to and loss of property, and suffering and hardship, by lessening the impact of future disasters.
HUD’s CDBG-MIT funding provides a new opportunity for a select number of states and entitlement communities impacted by major disasters in 2015, 2016, and 2017. HUD has broadly defined mitigation activities as those activities that increase resilience to disasters and reduce or eliminate the long-term risk of loss of life, injury, damage to and loss of property, and suffering and hardship, by lessening the impact of future disasters. Three Federal Register Notices (84 FR 45838, 84 FR 47528, 85 FR 4676) allocated a total of $15.9 billion to 16 states, cities, counties, and U.S. territories to carry out such mitigation activities over twelve years.
CDBG-MIT funding requirements include close coordination across all mitigation efforts within a state and community, including FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) and its policies. In order for HUD grantees’ programs to be approved, they must conduct a foundational mitigation needs assessment that demonstrates how those mitigation programs will: reduce the risks to FEMA’s community lifelines; build the capacity of state and local governments to regularly update their Hazard Mitigation Plans (HMP); and coordinate with FEMA when it comes to mitigation planning and project efforts.
How are BRIC and CDBG-MIT different?
Neither BRIC nor CDBG-MIT alone can address all vulnerable communities’ risks. However, they do lay out the framework for taking stock and understanding state, regional, and local risks. This leads to informed and coordinated project and policy decision making, and ultimately improves future resilience to those risks. Both grants are similar in their approach but have their differences when it comes to policy and project eligibility.
Congress appropriated and HUD allocated a total of $15.9 billion dollars of CDBG-MIT funds to 16 states, territories, counties, and cities for qualifying disasters in 2015, 2016, and 2017. Congress and HUD have not indicated whether there are plans for future CDBG-MIT appropriations or allocations.
For BRIC funding, FEMA is authorized to set aside up to 6% of total estimated disaster expenditures associated with each presidential disaster declaration. These funds will go into the National Public Infrastructure Pre-Disaster Mitigation Fund, with annual contributions fluctuating based on the number and cost of disasters in the prior year. FEMA estimates that annual contributions will be between $300 and $500 million, with some of that funding set aside for states, U.S. territories, and Indian tribes, and the remaining funding open to competition. For this reason, BRIC funding represents a more widely available source of annual mitigation funding for states, local governments, and regional agencies to access.
COVID-19 and eligibility for BRIC
A key eligibility criterion for BRIC is that applicants or sub-applicants must be located within a state, district, Indian tribal government, or U.S. territory that has received a major disaster declaration under the Stafford Act in the seven years prior to the annual grant application period start date. The COVID-19 pandemic represents the first time in history that all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Indian tribal governments, and five territories received major disaster declarations, which means they are all eligible applicants for BRIC funding.
Non-federal cost share requirements
Because of FEMA’s emphasis on coordination and local participation in projects, the BRIC program generally requires a non-federal cost-share of 25%, with the share being less or waived under certain exceptions. (FEMA states small, impoverished communities are eligible for an increase in cost share of up to 90% federal or 10% non-federal. For insular areas, including American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, FEMA automatically waives the non-federal cost share for the recipient when the non-federal cost share for the entire award is under $200,000. The recipient may request the waiver in its application.)
CDBG-MIT funds do not carry any cost-share requirement, but communities are encouraged to leverage CDBG-MIT funds with other funding sources. CDBG-MIT funds can serve as the source of the non-federal cost share for FEMA BRIC funding. We discuss how this can be done in the following sections.
Most impacted geographic areas
As part of CDBG-MIT funding, HUD has designated several key areas throughout each state as “Most Impacted and Distressed” (MID) areas. State and territory recipients must spend 50% of their funding on activities that address risks in the HUD-defined MID areas. For the remaining 50%, states may identify state-defined MID areas and make investments in activities that address risks in those areas. While this may appear to be restrictive, this does not necessarily preclude grantees from carrying out regional projects that address risks both inside and outside the HUD- and state-defined MIDs.
BRIC funding does not carry these geographic requirements; however, it stipulates the type of projects grantees can conduct. For this reason, BRIC funding represents an opportunity for applicants to decide where to strategically implement projects. BRIC can address mitigation needs in areas of the state that have not yet been impacted by a disaster but are still at risk from future disasters.
Unlike BRIC, CDBG–MIT funding must primarily benefit vulnerable low-income people and communities. Through the CDBG-MIT allocation, HUD specifies that 50% of each grantees’ overall CDBG-MIT grant must go toward activities that benefit low- and moderate-income (LMI) persons. Generally, all CDBG-MIT projects—other than planning projects—must satisfy what are known as “national objectives.”
Under CDBG-MIT, the national objectives are limited to:
- Providing a benefit to LMI persons, businesses, or primarily residential areas, or
- Addressing a severe and recently arising urgent community welfare or health need (UNM).
FEMA BRIC funding does not have a beneficiary income requirement, but it does carry a Benefit-Cost Analysis (BCA) requirement, which is the method for determining the future risk reduction benefits of a hazard mitigation project and comparing those benefits to its costs. The result is a Benefit-Cost Ratio. A project is considered cost-effective when the BCR is 1.0 or greater.
While HUD does not require BCAs for all CDBG-MIT projects, any project that meets the “Covered Project” threshold for HUD does require a BCA. Covered Projects are defined as “an infrastructure project having a total project cost of $100 million or more, with at least $50 million of CDBG funds (regardless of source [CDBG-DR, CDBG-NDR, CDBG-MIT, or CDBG]).”
Eligible projects and activities
BRIC and CDBG-MIT have distinct regulations and requirements that set parameters around what types of programs, projects, and activities can and cannot be funded. There is significant eligibility overlap between the two programs, but each require their own documentation, application, and selection processes.
Similarities between BRIC and CDBG-MIT
BRIC and CDBG-MIT share similarities in the implementation of projects that minimize the impact of future disasters. Both programs promote purposeful planning, coordination, and data-driven decision making with the goal of reducing long-term risk to life and property.
There are five main ways to leverage both FEMA BRIC and HUD CDBG-MIT funding sources:
- Reduce risks to applicable FEMA community lifelines.
- Adopt policies that reflect local and regional priorities.
- Foster the development of innovative mitigation infrastructure.
- Develop the capacity of staff to implement mitigation projects.
- Encourage strategic partnerships with other entities.
Reduce risks to applicable FEMA community lifelines
A lifeline enables the continuous operation of critical government and business functions and is essential to human health and safety, as well as to economic security. FEMA developed the construct of community lifelines to increase the effectiveness of disaster operations and to better position communities to respond to disaster events. Community lifelines allow communities to identify the risks to specific areas and determine what the main priorities are to reduce these risks. The following are the seven community lifelines:
- Safety and Security
- Food, Water, Shelter
- Health and Medical
- Energy (Power and Fuel)
FEMA BRIC encourages communities to propose mitigation solutions that reduce risks to community lifelines in their applications, and HUD requires CDBG-MIT grantees to incorporate community lifeline risks in their Mitigation Needs Assessment, which serves as the foundation for justifying their uses of CDBG-MIT funds. Below is an example of how FEMA used these lifelines to evaluate the impact of Hurricane Isaias.
FEMA incorporates these community lifelines into its hazard mitigation planning and its development of BRIC-funded projects. Eligible BRIC-funded projects must demonstrate how they will reduce risks to one or more of these lifelines. CDBG-MIT requires communities to quantitatively assess their mitigation needs (and how previous and future disasters may affect community lifelines) so that grantees can justify proposed projects in terms of their reduction of loss of life, injury, and property damage during disasters.
For example, a mitigation project serving the Health and Medical lifeline may be storm hardening an at-risk hospital’s exterior so it can maintain medical services during and after a disaster event. At least conceptually, this type of project would meet both BRIC and CDBG-MIT requirements to reduce risks to community lifelines. The interconnectedness of community lifelines not only during normal operations, but in times of and following a disaster, demonstrates why strengthening them can ensure an accelerated recovery following a disaster.
Adopt policies that reflect local and regional priorities
The DRRA of 2018 provides a legislative mandate to support the broader adoption of updated building codes, to which BRIC projects must conform. BRIC communities can choose to evaluate the adoption and/or implementation of codes that reduce risk, enhance existing adopted codes to incorporate more current requirements or higher standards, or develop professional workforce capabilities on enhanced building codes through technical assistance and training.
One example of this is the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Prior to the disaster, the city’s fire department collaborated with the Colorado Springs Housing and Building Association using FEMA mitigation funding to conduct research on ways to mitigate the impacts of wildfires on residential buildings. This collaboration led to enhanced local building code ordinances, and various other non-structural mitigation activities, which have been credited with saving lives and millions in damages. It also led to Ordinance No. 18-50, which amended the International Fire Code to address wildland/urban interface mitigation requirements for high-risk areas.
CDBG-MIT also supports the adoption of policies that reflect local and regional priorities to reduce long-term risks to the communities. CDBG-MIT can be used for a variety of eligible activities, including fund land-use plans, disaster-resistant building codes and standards, hazard mitigation plans, and other planning objectives.
Foster the development of innovative mitigation infrastructure
FEMA defines resilient infrastructure as critical physical structures, facilities, and systems that provide support to a community, its population, and its economy. FEMA asks communities to be more innovative in how infrastructure projects are conceived. What types of mitigation projects are offered? How can a project be designed or built differently that makes it either more cost-effective, quicker to implement, or more impactful? In many case, innovative projects often offer multiple benefits to a community in addition to risk reduction.
Blue Lake Rancheria is a federally recognized tribal government and Native American community adjacent to Blue Lake (Humboldt County) in an area subject to heavy rainstorms, forest fires, and frequent power outages. In 2017, the reservation constructed a low-carbon community microgrid to become more resilient against future outages. The project integrates renewable energy with battery storage, a microgrid controller, and controllable loads into a single microgrid. If the main grid experiences a power outage, the microgrid will automatically disconnect and provide standalone power that supports an American Red Cross evacuation center and a six-building campus. This project proved to be an effective mitigation strategy in 2019 when a nearby wildfire caused a power outage near the reservation and the microgrid successfully kept the facilities from experiencing a blackout. This project has also been considered an innovative energy solution that provides both carbon emission and electricity cost savings. The microgrid is projected to save $150,000 a year and reduce 150 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.
CDBG-MIT allows for a spectrum of innovative mitigation activities such as making public facilities more resilient, removing housing from high-risk areas and adding housing to low-risk areas, conducting mitigation planning, providing public services that address a community’s social resilience to disasters, and developing small business solutions for economic resilience. In combination, local and state governments can fund similar innovative and resilient projects to support communities during and post-disaster events to ensure that critical functions can continue.
Develop staff capacity and data to implement mitigation projects
Both BRIC and CDBG-MIT can be used to fund capacity-building activities, such as hiring more staff resources, training existing staff, or updating existing processes to be more resilience-focused. Having the resources available to develop this capacity at the local level allows communities to foster a culture of preparedness as part of their response and recovery strategy, ultimately saving time and effectively deploying resources during and after a disaster. Further, by investing in local capacity, communities can better understand where the gaps exist and take action to mitigate risks prior to a disaster, which will ultimately reduce or eliminate damage from future natural hazards.
BRIC seeks to build the capacity of states and local governments to manage their projects and requires applicants to have an approved jurisdictional hazard mitigation plan. Using data on prior disasters and an analysis of disaster risks, communities can regularly update hazard mitigation plans and make informed decisions about how to mitigate future risks. CDBG-MIT requires that grantees align their Action Plan with their state and local hazard mitigation plans and encourages grantees to undertake community engagement and data collection activities as part of their planning processes. By using data-centric tools such as GIS mapping, flood studies, and data received through comprehensive community outreach, grantees can understand the risks and how their proposed projects will minimize them.
As allowed by both funding sources, using administration and planning dollars to increase state and local governments’ current workforce capacities through training and technical assistance can improve how communities prepare for disasters and administer their mitigation assistance.
Encourage strategic partnerships with other entities
BRIC and CDBG-MIT are both pushing for more integration and coordination. The objective is to improve collaboration between federal, state, and local governments, as well as between private entities, non-profit organizations, and communities. Grantees need to identify initiatives that support mitigation and identify stakeholders or new partnerships within the community through collaboration. This collaboration can support diverse perspectives, help find the most impactful solutions, and identify planned mitigation projects that lack available funding.
For example, hospital administrators of Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Florida knew their hospital’s infrastructure was vulnerable but were unsure how to fully fund the renovation project. Through a partnership between the hospital, FEMA, the Miami-Dade County Office of Emergency Management, and the Florida Division of Emergency Management, Nicklaus Children’s Hospital received over $5 million in funding through FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program to supplement funds set aside by Nicklaus Children’s Hospital to retrofit the exterior to withstand a category 4 hurricane and winds up to 200 miles per hour. As a result, the hospital now has a hurricane-resistant exterior shell made of glass fiber-reinforced concrete and impact-resistant windows as well as additional roof support. Close coordination ensured that construction activity occurred without disrupting medical services. The project was a success; the hospital did not need to evacuate patients and families during Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004 and was able to host patients evacuated from the Florida Keys.
Increased coordination can improve governmental functions, maximize the impact of available funds through matching, and set up communities to be resilient against future disasters. In addition, a more collaborative environment opens avenues for communities to share all mitigation investments and discuss successes and failures.
Matching BRIC and CDBG-MIT funding
Leveraging both funding sources for the same project is perhaps the best way to ensure coordination between BRIC and CDBG-MIT grantees. By meeting all the necessary requirements of both sources, grantees can tap into more funding for a project but also ensure they meet resilience objectives holistically.
For the BRIC program, FEMA covers the 75% federal share, meaning the state or local government is required to contribute 25% of approved costs through other funding sources or contributions. The non-federal cost share is the portion of the cost of a federally assisted project or program typically not funded by the federal government. The non-federal cost share requirement may be increased or decreased depending on the circumstances of the community or any approved waivers.
CDBG-MIT can be used to cover the non-federal cost share—or serve as the match—for BRIC projects, provided there is no duplication of benefit across all funding sources and the BRIC-approved project also meets all CDBG-MIT eligibility and national objective requirements. The match can either enter the project on a pro-rata basis, where BRIC covers 75% and CDBG-MIT covers 25% of each cost, or specific costs can be designated to BRIC or CDBG-MIT. Under certain circumstances, matching specific costs can help grantees reduce the administrative burden of reviewing every cost for each funding source, as potentially fewer costs must be reviewed for CDBG-MIT eligibility and fewer contracts must satisfy HUD’s requirements. A guideline on streamlining the local match process and satisfying federal requirements using CDBG-DR was recently published by both FEMA and HUD and a training webinar was also conducted November 2020.
Making resilience more successful
As communities across the country experience increased frequency and intensity of disasters, FEMA’s BRIC and HUD’s CDBG-MIT programs can be viewed as an unprecedented investment in their futures. Both grants provide a valuable resource that allows for more options in addressing how local and state governments mitigate against future disasters and deliver solutions that are best for their communities. Whether it’s large-scale infrastructure projects, regional flood studies, or building staff capacity through training and technical assistance, the flexibility of these funds provides an opportunity to dig into each community’s unique needs and design programs to address them.
In addition, with a focus on cross-jurisdictional and agency collaboration, these funds promote a whole-community approach that leverages the expertise of the public and private sectors, including businesses, faith-based and non-profit organizations, and the general public. Combined with an emphasis on data-driven decisions, communities and other stakeholders can make informed decisions that consider all priorities in order to reduce both the timeline for recovery and the impacts of future disasters. It is an exciting time to be thinking about mitigation and what a more resilient community could look like.