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It’s Danger Season–Is Our Nation’s Infrastructure Ready? 

   

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We’re now in the midst of “Danger Season”– the months between May and October when we witness extreme events turbo-charged by climate change. These six months bring dangerous and often deadly conditions due to peaks in heat waves, heavy rainfall, hurricanes and wildfires.  

We’re witnessing an increase in costly damages thanks to fossil-fueled climate change, which has increased the intensity and frequency of some extreme events, and also thanks to more buildings and people in risky areas. On the ground, this means communities, local, state and the federal government, territories and tribes have less time to prepare for the next event and less time to respond after an event. These shorter timeframes between disasters pose significant challenges to finance and implement measures to make the infrastructure resilient to the next extreme event. 

As climate drives global average temperatures to record highs month after month and year after year, our infrastructure is facing harsher conditions than ever. In the week preceding the official start of summer alone, conditions were already looking more and more dangerous: 

Extreme Heat: Earlier in June, a heat wave in Puerto Rico stressed energy infrastructure damaged after hurricanes Maria and Fiona and caused transmission line failures between San Juan and Aguas Buenas. As a result, 350,000 people lost power.  As my colleague John Rogers explains, extreme heat can have cascading impacts on our electricity system making electricity more expensive, more polluting, and less reliable. As temperatures rise, so too does the demand for energy as more people turn to AC to keep cool. Higher demand means power grid operators, who start with the cleaner and cheaper plants like solar power, need to pull other, often dirtier, gas or coal-fired power plants online. As demand escalates beyond supply, grid operators run out of supply options which can result in blackouts. Under high heat conditions, power plants can also be less efficient at producing electricity as they normally would under cooler conditions.  But there is some good news: grid operators are finding that the solar power capacity has increased the grid system’s reliability during heatwaves. Sadly, extreme heat has disruptive impacts on other infrastructure as well, for example it can buckle railways, warp pavement and tarmac and melt tires on planes.  
Heavy Rainfall and Flooding: Heavy rainfall in southern Florida in June swamped places like Fort Lauderdale, which received a record daily rainfall of 9.5 inches, bringing many places to a standstill. Roads were closed, people and vehicles were trapped by waist-high flooding, flights at airports in Miami, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood and Orlando were delayed, and disaster declarations were issued for 5 counties (Broward, Collier, Lee, Miami-Dade and Sarasota Counties). Southeast Texas suffered a deluge of rain from back-to-back storm events causing homes, gas stations, restaurants and neighborhoods to flood. Families were rescued from rooftops and some “lost everything”.  From April 28 to May 7 parts of East Texas recorded a massive 25 inches of rainfall compared to the average 1.2 inches during that same period (1981-2010). High water levels forced dam operators to implement controlled flow releases to alleviate the risk of aging dams breaking. The Upper Midwest is also suffering from major to historic flooding. The Governor of Iowa issued disaster declarations for 21 counties and reported that “hospitals, nursing homes and other care facilities were evacuated. Cities are without power, and some are without drinkable water.”  
Wildfires: In early June, wildfires ignited at a rapid pace in California and in other western states causing road closures, evacuations, structural damage and poor air quality. My colleague Paul Arbaje explains that wildfires can have direct impacts on critical components of the power grid. For example, the intense heat can cause transmission lines to sag towards the ground, and the soot and smoke can weaken the transmission lines’ insulation causing a greater likelihood of faulting. And the damages to transmission and distribution systems can be costly. Arbaje notes that wildfire damage over six years (2000 to 2016) caused more than $700 million in damages to California’s transmission and distribution systems. 
Compound and Cascading Events: In New Mexico, the reports of the compound disasters in just a short period of time are harrowing. High temperatures and sustained drought provided the conditions for two wildfires that burned thousands of acres, destroyed structures and took lives. Then Tropical Storm Alberto dropped eight inches of rainfall in some of the central parts of the state, more than the state sees in most years. This heavy rainfall resulted in flash flooding and dangerous debris flow. If those impacts weren’t enough, high winds caused a massive dust storm or “haboob” which clouded people’s visibility, leading to a traffic nightmare and a 20-car crash in a deadly pile-up. Even with the rainfall, wildfire containment and suppression efforts continue. And on one of the hottest days in New York City, a malfunctioning circuit breaker caused a power outage disrupting Amtrak train schedules and long delays for commuters. Scientists describe how compound events like what New Mexico experienced and cascading impacts like the disruption in train travel will become more frequent with climate change.   

As the costs of billion-dollar disasters continue to rise and we witness shorter intervals between disasters, how we build and repair infrastructure now matters. Climate science, policy incentives, standards and adaptation plans will help to advance the resilience of critical infrastructure and ensure it is built or repaired to withstand climate change risks over the lifecycle of the asset. But first we need major investments in climate resilience.   

Here are a few essential steps Congress must take: 

There’s a nagging challenge each year before the end of the fiscal year and around the start of Danger Season when FEMA’s Disaster Resilience Fund (DRF) is nearly running on empty. The DRF is FEMA’s primary source for funding its operational needs and disaster assistance for local and state governments and households after a disaster declaration. According to FEMA’s latest report, the DRF could be more than $6.8 billion in the red by September. FEMA administrator Criswell is still waiting for Congress to fulfill her request for an additional $9 billion for the DRF. 

Congress must prioritize robust funding for disaster relief and not leave FEMA hanging when it’s clear we’re in for a busy danger season. We also need Congress to come up with a more reliable and direct way to sustain DRF resources.  

Congress must also pass the bipartisan and bicameral Reforming Disaster Recovery Act, which would permanently authorize the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) Program. The CDBG-DR program provides long-term recovery assistance grants to households and communities after a disaster. The bill would ensure more predictable dispersal of grants among other vital changes and important improvements.  

We rely on infrastructure like electricity to power our lights, hospitals when we’re hurt and schools to educate our children. Yet much of the US infrastructure is in disrepair, earning a below average, passing grade due to the lack of systematic investments in maintenance. This decade, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that  $2.58 trillion is needed to close the investment gap in critical infrastructure systems. Climate change-related impacts, such as sea level rise and extreme heat, have exacerbated these vulnerabilities and stressed the interdependent infrastructure systems causing complications if for example electricity shorts out and the lights go off at a local hospital.  

While funding challenges exist across the board, even in metropolitan areas with robust tax bases, an array of proactive financial mechanisms exist that local, state and the federal governments can implement to enhance funding opportunities. Uniting resources across public and private entities and sectors and at multiple scales helps to increase the capacity to plan and finance adaptation. The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) in San Francisco, for example, has developed a framework in which they identified resources they could pull from, including local taxes, local and state bonds, and state and federal grants, while also identifying potentially new funding avenues. Given the upfront costs of some adaptation measures, successful projects often pool from multiple government grants, as in the case of ABAG, which identified funding resources from seven different federal agencies.  

Federal, state and local governments can establish financial mechanisms such as infrastructure banks and revolving loan programs to help fund adaptation and resilience measures. For example: 

FEMA has the Safeguarding Tomorrow Revolving Loan Fund Program, which provides $150 million for Fiscal Year 2024 to help state and local governments finance water, wastewater, infrastructure, disaster recovery, community and small business development projects. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) provided FEMA with $100 million annually for five years to support this program. 
Rhode Island has an infrastructure bank to help develop and implement clean energy, climate resilience, brownfield remediation, and water infrastructure solutions and capital improvement projects for roads and bridges.  
Miami’s Forever Bond provides support for sea level rise and flood prevention, roadways, parks and cultural facilities, public safety, and affordable housing. 

While the BIL investments are an important step forward to sustain and rebuild infrastructure systems, a limited portion of these funds will ensure infrastructure is built and repaired to withstand climate change risks. We will need Congress and the administration to develop additional programs and new pots of money to advance the much-needed resilience and reliability of the nation’s critical infrastructure into the future. 

Data show that federal dollars spent on mitigating extreme weather and climate change-related risks are cost effective. For example, on average, federal hazard mitigation grants save $6 for every dollar invested in damages avoided. And critical “lifeline” infrastructure projects, such as water treatment plants, can have a return of up to $31 for every dollar invested.  

As the BIL funds are being invested in projects across the country, it’s important that federal agencies guide the funding to those communities that have historically been disadvantaged and have the least resources to prepare for extreme weather and climate change related risks. If the goal of the Justice40 Initiative (J40) is met and 40 percent of the benefits of certain programs are targeted to disadvantaged communities, it’ll be a significant milestone for these communities and the federal government alike. 

However, a new UCS study by Amanda Fencl and colleagues followed federal funding flows from the BIL for the state of California. They found that, to date, only 24% of the BIL funding allocated in California went towards the designated disadvantaged communities J40 was designed to benefit. While it’s still early in the BIL allocation process, the Follow the Money report provides a useful snapshot of potential challenges at this stage in the implementation process, and recommends that the federal government improve the tracking of federal funding throughout the funding process. My colleague Chitra Kumar provides insights on J40 and additional recommendations here.  What I think most can agree on is that investments are sorely needed in these communities, and the federal agencies and the administration should commit to continuous improvements to meet the goals of J40. 

There is no doubt the nation has a big to-do list when it comes to advancing climate-resilient infrastructure across sectors. But there is good news: we know investments now can save money down the road by reducing damages; we can learn a lot from how the BIL is being implemented and do better to close the resilience and Justice40 gaps; we have the latest climate science to inform planning; and we have resilience frameworks (e.g. the White House National Climate Resilience Framework and UCS’s Toward Climate Resilience framework) to help guide decisionmakers.

With Danger Season providing an unwelcome look into our climate future, wealthier nations like the United States must rapidly reduce global heat-trapping emissions, phase out fossil fuels and ramp up clean energy solutions. The administration and Congress must also invest in climate-ready infrastructure at the scale the climate crisis demands. In the interim, we also need the administration, Congress, state and local governments and the private sector to ensure we have the standards to guide the building and repair of climate-ready infrastructure. 

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