Last month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) unveiled a new program to designate what it calls “Community Disaster Resilience Zones” and announced 483 such zones across the U.S. Far from being resilient, these places have a particularly high risk of natural disasters, many of which are the result of global warming. The FEMA designation means increased federal support and technical assistance to build better resilience. But it’s not just for federally funded projects. FEMA’s designation gives state and local governments a way to prioritize resilience-building efforts by focusing on the most at-risk communities, in which nonprofits and businesses—architects, planners, and designers—might be working. I reached out to Victoria Salinas, deputy administrator for resilience at FEMA, about the program’s goals, its potential impacts, and what it could mean for communities looking for technical assistance to combat the effects of climate change.
MJC: Michael J. Crosbie
VS: Victoria Salinas
This new program grew out of legislation. What prompted it, and what are its goals?
The Community Disaster Resilience Zones Act was signed into law by President Biden in December 2022. Congress implemented this bipartisan legislation to help build resilience to natural hazards and communities most at risk from climate change. It requires FEMA to utilize such data as the National Risk Index for Natural Hazards to identify census tracts that are most at risk from the effects of natural hazards and climate change.
Communities identified as resilience zones are able to receive additional support—funding and technical assistance—for resilience projects that will help communities to reduce the impact of climate change. The act enables a range of all levels of government and private sector partners to provide this targeted assistance to these communities.
The big idea behind this program is to harness the power of collaboration and cross-sector coordination across governmental agencies, philanthropic foundations, private nonprofits, universities, the insurance industry, and private businesses—including architecture, planning, and design firms. The goal here is to ensure that the most at-risk and most in-need communities have the support, resources, and opportunities they need to improve their resilience.
Which factors were considered by FEMA to designate a community as a resilience zone?
FEMA considered the risk to natural hazards from at a national and a state level, while accounting for factors that reflect disaster impacts felt by a diversity of communities: coastal, inland, urban, suburban, and rural. To identify resilience zones, FEMA uses components of the National Risk Index to identify the most at-risk and in-need communities. It includes data about the expected annual losses to individual natural hazards, social vulnerability, and community resilience, available at county and census tract levels.
What kind of natural hazards does this index track?
It includes risk factors for 18 natural disasters, such as coastal flooding, drought, earthquake, heatwave, hurricane wind, tornado, and wildfire—all of these, of course, would have an impact on the built environment.
What other factors were considered by FEMA for a resilience zone designation? And how often is this info updated?
The National Risk Index is a nationwide, holistic assessment of baseline risk to the natural hazards I mentioned, among others. It’s used to work with state, local, tribal, and territorial partners to determine risk. There’s an interactive National Risk Index map that anyone can access. In addition to the risk index, FEMA is using the White House’s Climate & Economic Justice Screening tool. Combining these data sets, FEMA employs the 2020 U.S. Census tracts to determine the resilience zones. Communities in the top 1% of the index, or one of the top 50 most at-risk communities, along with being identified as a disadvantaged community in the Climate & Economic Justice screening tool, fall into the resilience zone designation.
The idea here is to use the designations to help build resilience across the nation by driving federal, public, and private resources to target these zones. According to the act, FEMA needs to regularly review and update its risk assessment of communities. The plan for the future is to designate additional zones based on updated information in the National Risk Index and other data on an ongoing basis. FEMA plans to expand the list over the next 12 to 18 months based on updates, the National Risk Index, and lessons learned from these initial designations as well as stakeholder input. The term for a FEMA resilience zone designation is five years.
Is there at least one zone in every state?
Yes, there is, and the District of Columbia.
What states have the most zones?
The three states with the most zones are California (51), Texas (35), and Florida (32)—all coastal states. Harris County, Texas, has the highest number of resilience zones, 14. Nationally, Community Disaster Resilience Zones cover a population of about 2 million people.
Is there a correlation between income levels of these residents and whether they live in a resilience zone? Do you see a pattern between income levels and high risk or low risk?
The designation of a resilience zone includes whether a community is economically disadvantaged, using the White House screening tool I mentioned. So, yes, the economic profile of a community is a factor in determining if it’s a resilience zone.
How should these communities respond to being designated resilience zones, and what kinds of projects are prime candidates for funding?
There’s no action required by local jurisdictions that are within a Community Disaster Resilience Zone. Over the next few months or so, FEMA, along with its partners, will be conducting outreach to resilience zone communities to make sure that they are aware of, and understand, the designation and the increased potential to access support and to leverage existing resilience building efforts that are already under way. So, for example, resilience projects that might already engage architects, planners, and designers, but are now eligible for increased cost-sharing with the government. We’ll be working closely with a range of public and private sector partners to help them also leverage their resources and capabilities to assist those communities with resilience zones to accelerate their resilience. The idea is to target more funding and expertise to communities most at risk from the effects of climate change.
Besides prioritizing federal funding, what other resources does the program help with—perhaps design expertise, analysis, mitigation strategies?
The designation helps federal, state, and local governments to identify at-risk communities for prioritized funding, but it also can help different partners—public, private, nonprofits—by having a shared ranking tool to determine those communities most at risk, with the goal of really accelerating community resilience building. So it’s not just funding, but where to focus resilience-building efforts.
Is this tool available to nongovernmental organizations?
Yes. It’s an exciting opportunity to leverage collaboration and coordination across not only government agencies, but philanthropy, nonprofits, academic expertise, and businesses such as design, engineering, and construction firms.
What are some of the benefits you expect to see through this new program?
Designated resilience zones will have prioritized access to federal funding for resilience and mitigation projects. FEMA will be using Community Disaster Resilience Zone designations to direct and manage financial and technical assistance for resilience projects. And they’re also a tool to prioritize investments in disaster and climate resilience—not only for FEMA projects, but other federal agencies and nonprofit partners. So we expect to see that happen across the federal government as well. For example, for federal agencies the legislation provides additional federal cost-sharing for projects in designated zones—that will help local communities whose budgets for such projects are already stretched. But it’s not just the federal government who’ll be able to leverage Community Disaster Resilience Zone designations to help accelerate resilience. Nonprofits, philanthropies, and other non-federal partners are now better able to focus their own investments in community resilience and climate adaptation to accelerate efforts to reduce the impacts of the climate crisis.
Images via FEMA.