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‘Superuser’ states devour climate grants as others get nothing

By Thomas Frank | 11/13/2023 06:47 AM EST

Waves crash over the seawall at Fort Point.

Waves crash over the seawall at Fort Point in San Francisco. Eric Risberg/AP

A federal climate grant program has been monopolized by five large states that together have collected half of its money, highlighting an uneven disbursement of government funding that often leaves poorer regions with less financial help to prepare for intensifying disasters.

Meanwhile, several smaller states such as Mississippi and West Virginia haven’t collected millions of dollars set aside for them, effectively ignoring the government’s offer of free money for climate-related infrastructure projects, an E&E News analysis of federal records shows.

The 3-year-old program within the Federal Emergency Management Agency has become a national showcase for expansive projects that are meant to protect communities against the strengthening impacts of disasters such as floods and wildfires.

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Yet the program — known as , or BRIC — also has become a warning sign as the federal government distributes tens of billions of dollars in new climate-resilience money. The program, and others like it that were launched recently, award money through competitions that often favor large, affluent jurisdictions with the resources to submit detailed grant applications.

“There’s more funding than there’s ever been before, but it’s not enough for all the adaptation and resilience work that must occur for us to be ready for the next 60 or 80 years,” said Victoria Salinas, FEMA associate administrator for resilience. “That’s one of the critical gaps in this time of historical investments — our ability to help underserved communities develop resiliency plans and technical capacity not just for FEMA [grants] but for other agencies.”

California and four other states — Florida, New York, North Carolina and Washington state — have together received $2 billion, or half of the money allocated through BRIC since 2021.

Yet 24 smaller states have altogether been awarded less than 5 percent of BRIC funding.

“Some states don’t have the people, time or resources,” Salinas said, referring to the in-depth process of applying for grants.

Records recently published by FEMA show that Mississippi and West Virginia did not apply this year for any of the $2 million that was set aside through BRIC for every state. The grants could be spent on resilience projects, planning or the development of expertise on those issues.

Mississippi, which also did not apply for funds that were set aside in 2021, said it was using other types of FEMA funding for resilience projects, according to the .

West Virginia, with some of the nation’s highest flood risk, has not submitted a single application for a separate part of BRIC that has distributed $3 billion in grants through a national competition.

New Mexico also has not sought any of the $3 billion, records show.

Officials from both states did not respond to requests for comment.

“We’re seeing year after year that there are many communities that are low-capacity or rural that are just not getting this money,” said Kristin Smith, a climate expert at Headwaters Economics research group in Montana .

The inability or unwillingness of some states to seek the FEMA climate grants could signal larger problems that delay regions on the front lines of rising seas, hurricanes and wildfires from building new infrastructure to prevent damage.

FEMA designed BRIC to help every state — by setting aside tens of millions of dollars a year to be divided equally among them. The annual allocation payment from BRIC can fund a range of activities and is given to any state that applies.

But states collectively have not received $58 million of the money set aside in the three years since BRIC began, E&E News found. The figure accounts for nearly a third of the $184 million that FEMA has set aside.

“If a state is smaller and doesn’t have a lot of staff, it’s challenging for them to go after those federal funds and then manage those funds,” said Natural Resources Defense Council’s senior policy analyst, Anna Weber, who . “BRIC is an extremely important program. It does have a really big role to play.”

Salinas of FEMA said that Mississippi, with 10 major disasters since 2020, has been awash in other FEMA money and “really is at capacity on what they can do.”

Mississippi Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Malary White said communities have been using FEMA post-disaster aid for resiliency projects instead of applying for BRIC money.

“MEMA had guaranteed mitigation dollars,” White said, using her agency’s acronym and referring to FEMA disaster aid.

The money that FEMA has set aside for states represents only a small portion of BRIC funding, or about 4 percent. More than three-quarters of the BRIC money is distributed through a competitive process whereby FEMA picks winning grant applications — but some states are ignoring that funding, too.

BRIC offers up to $50 million for a single project. Most states sought more than $100 million through the competitive grant program in the past three years.

But several states in addition to West Virginia and New Mexico have sought little or nothing.

New Hampshire has applied for only $847,000 through the BRIC grant program, records show.

“BRIC is a new program for FEMA and the learning process is ongoing for all parties,” Vanessa Palange, a spokesperson for New Hampshire Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said in an email.

Some states have learned BRIC well.

California, which has 12 percent of the U.S. population, has received nearly a quarter of all BRIC funding — $930 million. When combined with the four other states that dominate the program — New York, Florida, North Carolina and Washington state — they account for 30 percent of the nation’s population but have received half of all BRIC funding.

Salinas calls the states “superusers.” Each one has created strong programs to help their communities — particularly those with low-income levels — develop and submit BRIC applications.

“That results in a pipeline of projects,” Salinas said. “When a grant process opens up, they’re able to submit more.”

Three projects being funding with the latest round of BRIC funding include:

  • Raising seawalls in San Francisco’s Embarcadero Historic District ($50 million).
  • Building a new shelter for emergency workers in Key West, Fla. ($11.25 million).
  • Improving drainage in a section of Queens, N.Y., that floods during heavy rains ($50 million).

In contrast, 24 states with 21 percent of the U.S. population have collectively received just 5 percent of all BRIC funding, E&E News found.

“Many of those states have been chronically trying to build up or build hazard mitigation teams and have had very little capacity,” Salinas said.

FEMA has sought to encourage BRIC applications by helping an increasing number of disadvantaged municipalities as well as tribal nations with climate-risk assessments and planning.

include Philadelphia; Thomasville, Ga.; Riverton, Iowa; and dozens of tribes.

“It’s really hard to get out of this loop of keeping your nose above water and move to a new level of resilience if you’re constantly just trying to recover from the last disaster,” Salinas said.