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FEMA Focuses on Environmental Preservation to Fight Climate Change

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As the climate changes, FEMA is adapting to meet new challenges. Focusing on preserving the environment is just one of the many ways we are confronting the impacts of climate change.

Director of the Office of Environmental Planning and Historic Preservation (EHP) Kristin Fontenot is one of the people on the frontline of these efforts.

Fontenot says a priority of the office is to help communities build resiliency by protecting the land. They work to ensure that FEMA programs and grants take the historic and cultural properties and environmental resources of the community into consideration when building resilience or recovering from a disaster.

Last year, the office reviewed over 20,220 Public Assistance projects to find ways to minimize or mitigate impacts to environmental and cultural resources while recovering from disasters. They mobilized the protection of cultural and historic resources during 17 major disasters by reaching out to representatives across 20 states. The Heritage Emergency National Task Force  mobilized in 2021 to help protect cultural and historic resources in all major disasters with significant outreach to a national network of cultural heritage networks providing support to these critically important resources and save them from permanent loss.  

She said that historic preservation plays a big part in their efforts and add to the challenges.

“Cities and towns, located in areas likely to experience an increase in floods or other natural disasters, have important histories that are part of what makes the United States special, and those resources and artifacts are at risk,” she said. “The increased complexities of these aspects of our work as we grapple with the climate crisis cannot be understated.”

Fontenot says communities will continue to face new challenges and that FEMA needs to help these communities rise to meet them.

“FEMA just released a plan that is guiding agency actions for the next 5 years,” Fontenot said. “For the first time ever, climate change and equity are two of the three over-arching goals of the agency’s priorities.” For Fontenot, this means taking seriously the importance of Environmental Justice as part of FEMA’s actions. “Making sure environmental justice and injustice is part of FEMA’s program delivery is so very important. Environmental Justice means that we avoid disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on low-income and minority populations.”

FEMA, like all federal agencies, must consider the impacts of its actions to cultural and environmental resources. There are a host of laws that inform how that analysis is part of FEMA’s mission delivery. For example:  

  • Environmental Assessments. These assessments, under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), are used to determine if significant environmental impacts will occur as a result of a FEMA action or a FEMA funded action.
  • Unified Federal Reviews (UFR). All federally funded projects must undergo an environmental review and the UFR process requires that agencies work together to reduce complexity of those reviews in the post-disaster recovery.
  • Guidelines for FEMA grants. FEMA grants help to protect and enhance natural and cultural resources. A condition of certain grants is that they are in compliance with all applicable environmental and historic preservation laws and regulations.

Fontenot says there are many ways your community can get involved in efforts to preserve the environment. This includes staying informed about cultural and environmental resources where you live and knowing how to protect them. She adds that every individual can play a role in fighting climate change.

“Every action helps,” she said. “That means participating in your local recycling program, proactively helping curb pollution and trash, and getting involved in local organizations that are helping decrease environmental justice issues and environmental hazard issues in your neighborhood or community.”

You can learn more about FEMA’s climate change programs and initiatives in the recent report FEMA Resources for Climate Resilience.