If there is one thing FEMA Hazard Mitigation Assistance Branch Chiefs Karen Helbrecht, Michael Hillenburg and Anna Pudlo have in common, it’s their desire to build stronger communities through disaster preparedness and resilience collaboration.
All three joined FEMA nearly 30 years ago, shortly after the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act was amended in 1988 to include funding for hazard mitigation.
Initially, FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program had funds appropriated from Congress with a budget of $200,000 that was used to educate communities on how to incorporate mitigation into post-disaster repairs.
“When I joined FEMA I was able to combine my floodplain management experience with hazard mitigation and use my knowledge about grants to help make a difference in communities. I enjoy working with local businesses and community officials to make their communities more disaster resilient by understanding the benefit of building codes and the availability of flood insurance,” said Pudlo, who is based in Chicago with FEMA Region V.
In 1994, we expanded by adding the Flood Mitigation Assistance program, with the goal to mitigate properties insured by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) that have repeatedly been damaged or destroyed by flooding, including elevating or relocating structures.
“I found the hazard mitigation program fascinating because it tried to prevent damage before [a disaster] happened versus repairing things after a disaster happened,” said Hillenburg, who is based in Denver, Colorado, with FEMA Region VIII.
A project that stands out to Pudlo and Hillenburg occurred after the Red River flooded Grand Forks, Minnesota, in 1997. FEMA purchased hundreds of affected structures and turned the previously developed land into open space that has the ability to absorb flood waters.
“Every year now when it floods, it’s a non-event. People are not devastated and emergency services can focus on other things and not have to go and evacuate people,” Pudlo said.
Six years after Flood Mitigation Assistance was launched, we determined that although it’s good to rebuild stronger communities after disasters, it would also be great to perform mitigation prior to disasters, leading to the Pre-Disaster Mitigation program being launched in 2000.
“The beauty of these programs is that FEMA gets to work with all areas of mitigation. We get to work with the engineers to talk about the risks. We get to work with Floodplain Management and promote the benefit of implementing strong building codes in local communities and to [ensure the] availability of flood insurance,” Pudlo said. “Then we also have FEMA’s grant programs which help communities take action before or after a disaster to make their community more resilient.”
Unlike the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program that requires a Presidentially-declared disaster to award grant money, or Flood Mitigation Assistance, which requires structures to be insured by the NFIP, the Pre-Disaster Mitigation program is funded through Congressional appropriations each year. Both non-disaster programs are about taking action today, before a disaster, and avoiding or minimizing future losses after a disaster.
As the program requirements on eligibility and how to apply for a hazard mitigation grant may vary, one thing is consistent across all programs – mitigation projects must be good investments for taxpayer funds. In recent years, we have streamlined the process of performing benefit cost analyses to ensure a cost savings to communities when rebuilding after disasters. Simply put, the cost of mitigation must show a positive financial benefit that future losses can be minimized or eliminated.
“A recent study done by the National Institute of Building Sciences demonstrates, on average, that a dollar invested towards mitigation has a six dollar return [on that investment],” Hillenburg said.
Over the past 30 years our mitigation programs have awarded $15 billion used to provide mitigation grants nationwide.
“Fifteen billion dollars is a lot of money. But again, we’ve done so much and there’s still so much to do,” said Pudlo. “So, even though that’s a huge accomplishment, it’s more of a motivator for us to do more in the coming years.”
But FEMA’s success is not limited to the financial realm. These employees are all very proud of the expanding reach and popularity of the mitigation programs over the past three decades.
“It makes me proud to see communities, post-disaster, that have done the right thing. That have elevated structures. That have done acquisitions,” Helbrecht said. “When communities have done acquisitions after floods and then the same type of disaster happens again, but there is no event, that’s really mitigation.”
After the 1993 Great Midwest Flood when the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers flooded numerous communities across several states, Congress made an additional amendment to the Stafford Act which allowed FEMA to create a property acquisition program. Through this program, FEMA was able to offer homeowners pre-flood, fair market value for their homes.
Helbrecht explained that property acquisition is an innovative way to provide assistance to individuals and allow them to rebuild their lives in a safer place.
“It makes me proud to see communities, post-disaster, that have done the right thing. That have elevated structures. That have done acquisitions,” said Helbrecht, based in Washington, D.C., at FEMA Headquarters. “When communities have done acquisitions after floods and then the same type of disaster happens again, but there is no event, that’s really mitigation.”
In another example, in Valmeyer, Illinois, residents decided to use FEMA’s property acquisition program to move their entire community to higher ground. In a solution unique to the town, FEMA and other federal and state organizations purchased nearby, vacant land and relocated residents.
“Now the community of Valmeyer no longer lives on the bottom lands, alongside the Mississippi River, but they are up on the bluff, overlooking the river in a safe space,” Helbrecht said.
Determining the best long-term mitigation plans for a community, and implementing innovative and successful programs, requires many people working together. Representatives from state, local, tribal and territorial governments work with community leaders, emergency managers, local businesses and organizations, environmental groups, faith-based organizations and schools to build resilient communities.
“FEMA, on its own, cannot do this ever-important work. We really need our partners to work with us to continue the mission to prevent future losses after a disaster,” Pudlo said.
Last year the Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration (FIMA) began working towards the strategic goal of multiplying mitigation investments by four times over the next five years. This will increase the availability of grants and the number of mitigation projects being done across the nation.
Pudlo emphasized that although FEMA’s hazard mitigation programs have been impactful and beneficial for communities, there is still much more to do.
“The hard work continues to promote good building codes and enforcement, promote the availability and benefits of flood insurance, and build wisely in a community,” Pudlo said. “We really need our state, local, tribal and territorial partners to continue to work with FEMA on this valuable mission, to [support and] promote our message, and to move forward in building a disaster resilient community.”