The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a mandate to prepare for, prevent, respond to, and recover from domestic disasters through both financial and physical resources. While it has been operational for 37 years, the agency came under fire ten years ago after its confusion, miscommunication, and supply failures in response to Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast.  Since then, it has bolstered its efforts to become a well-oiled machine in disaster response.
FEMA’s role will become significantly augmented as climate change creates extreme variability in weather patterns, leading to increased natural disasters like wildfires, droughts, hurricanes, and floods. Since there is no way that FEMA itself can reduce the variability that comes with climate change, it will need to accommodate it. Furthermore, FEMA has traditionally played a reactionary role in disaster relief, rather than looking forward.
What FEMA is doing
FEMA has implemented two major forward-looking policies that will make it more efficient as natural disasters increasingly demand its resources.
- FEMA has focused on forecasting future climate conditions and how they will impact natural disasters. One of the primary conclusions is that flooding will increase by 45 percent by 2100. For this reason, FEMA has vertically integrated to administer the National Flood Insurance Program, which provides flood insurance to families located in high-risk floodplains. By focusing on forecasting, FEMA is better able to plan for the types and magnitudes of impending natural disasters.
- FEMA has also shifted some of the burden of natural disaster prevention to state authorities to better utilize local resources to achieve FEMA’s purposes. They have done this with financial incentives – if state authorities implement disaster prevention policies and projects, FEMA will allocate more of their budget to that state. These projects could include flood buyouts, tornado and hurricane “safe rooms,” elevation of flood-prone buildings, wind and seismic retrofits of public buildings, stormwater management, defensible wildfire space, etc., depending on the natural disaster risks of individual states. However, if the states do not provide evidence of disaster prevention, FEMA reserves the right not to fund them. It is estimated that such pre-disaster mitigation projects will result in a $1.6B reduction in future disaster losses and a $1.2B reduction in future property damage.
FEMA Disaster Assistance and Preparedness Grants (2005-2016)
Other potential solutions
While these measures will be effective, FEMA’s own operations need to accommodate the variability that is caused by climate change. They have a few options:
- Forecasting is becoming increasingly important to FEMA, especially in understanding how longer term weather patterns will impact the type and frequency of natural disasters. Some argue that there is a lack of visibility and detailed information on natural disasters associated with climate change. However, partnering with an independent research organization could provide more visibility into which resources should be ramped up by FEMA.
- FEMA has also suffered from a lag in response time because of their centralized resources. FEMA should create some slack in their system by increasing inventory in the right locations. Tactically, this means deploying more resources at the state and local levels. FEMA resources being ready to respond more quickly to the same lead time because of their distributed locations will result in better outcomes for affected areas.
- Given the increased frequency of natural disasters due to climate change, FEMA has an opportunity to iterate on its disaster relief protocol until best practices are defined and can be deployed to similar disaster relief efforts. Standardizing the response to disaster relief will lead to better and more consistent responses.
FEMA has already seen some of the major effects of climate change in its disaster relief operations. With more planning for the future and deploying resources more efficiently, we should be confident that FEMA will be there for us when we need them.
 Chris Edwards, “Hurricane Katrina: Remembering the Federal Failures,” Cato Institute, August 27, 2015, https://www.cato.org/blog/hurricane-katrina-remembering-federal-failures, accessed November 2016.
 Rebecca M. Henderson, Sophus A. Reinert, Polina Dekhtyar, and Amram Migdal, “Climate Change in 2016: Implications for Business,” HBS No. 317-032 (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2016), p. 4.
 Kate Shephard and James West, “FEMA Report: Climate Change Could Increase Areas at Risk of Flood by 45 Percent,” Mother Jones (blog), June 13, 2013, http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/06/climate-change-could-double-number-americans-federal-flood-insurance, accessed November 2016.
 Luke Whelan, “Hello, state lawmakers: Want to ignore climate change? Prepare to lose FEMA funding,” Mother Jones (blog), April 1, 2015, http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2015/03/fema-governors-climate-change, accessed November 2016.
 Potential Cost Savings from the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program (Congress of the United States, Congressional Budget Office, 2007), https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/110th-congress-2007-2008/reports/09-28-disaster.pdf, accessed November 2016.