Adapting Disaster Relief Funding for Rebuilding

Focus Area

Climate Change


Air Quality, Environmental Process




Under $99k


Under 1 year

Research Idea Scope

Background (Problem):
Climate change is altering the physical
environment that we are living in. 
Future changes in climate will bring with it rising temperatures,
increased precipitation events, rising sea levels, more intense extreme weather
events.  These physical changes will
increase the vulnerability of transportation assets to flooding and other
physical stressors.  As a result, climate
change poses serious economic threats to federal, state, and local resources.
Recent extreme weather events have demonstrated the vulnerability of our
transportation system to impacts. 
Hurricane Katrina caused roughly $18 billion of damage to transportation
infrastructure in Louisiana alone.  In
2011, severe weather in the US caused more than $50 billion in damages;  and, in 2012, Superstorm Sandy also caused
catastrophic impacts to infrastructure in New York and New Jersey.


As a result of these threats, state
transportation agencies need to begin thinking about how they will adapt
transportation systems and assets. Adapting a transportation asset can include
retrofitting or elevation, relocation, or protection through seawalls or
bulkheads.  The challenge is that
adaptation will, in most cases, increase the upfront cost to rebuild assets.
Thus, adaptation may only occur if transportation agencies can find a way to
finance these costs.


Disaster relief funding provides a critical
window of opportunity for adapting the transportation system.  Transportation agencies are already
struggling to maintain aging infrastructure in an era of declining
transportation funding.  Thus, disaster
relief money may provide the only opportunity for agencies to rebuild assets to
be more resilient to future impacts. 
Given climate change projections, it may not be fiscally sustainable to
continue to rebuild transportation facilities after natural disasters without
considering the long-term vulnerability of the asset to climate impacts.


The problem is that constraints within laws
governing the expenditure of disaster relief funding may present barriers to
adaptation.  Two key federal programs
provide funding to state transportation agencies to help them rebuild roads,
bridges and interstate highways after a disaster declaration:


•             The
Public Assistance Program (PA Program) authorized by Section 406 of the Robert
T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act) and administered by
the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

•             The
Emergency Relief Program (ER Program) authorized by Section 125 of the Federal
Aid Highway Act and administered by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)


Both programs limit the ability of
transportation agencies to use the funds to rebuild assets differently.  Under the PA Program, FEMA is only allowed to
reimburse applicants for the costs to rebuild to the “pre-disaster condition”
of the asset.  The ER Program provides
FHWA with more flexibility to reimburse applicants to rebuild “comparable
facilities,” but facilities are still often rebuilt only to withstand historic
flood risks.


Both programs also, however, provide agencies
with flexibility to allow for adaptation. 
Under the PA Program, FEMA can use several alternative methods to
calculate reimbursement rates.  States
can be reimbursed for the full cost of rebuilding a facility to new codes or
standards that were adopted before the disaster.  They can also relocate a facility, if they
can show that, based on risk of recurring damage, it is more cost-effective to
relocate rather than to rebuild in place, 
Finally, they can opt for an “in lieu contribution,” which allows them
to redirect funds to other projects rather than replacing an asset in kind.


FHWA can also reimburse transportation
agencies for cost-effective “betterments”. 
Betterments are defined as added protective features that enhance the
character of the original facility.  To
obtain approval for a betterment, the agency must justify that the costs of the
betterment outweigh the cost of future recurring damage to the facility.  


The key objectives of this research would be


1.            Identify
opportunities for FEMA and FHWA to use existing legal authorities to fully
reimburse state transportation agencies to adaptively rebuild transportation
assets after a disaster.  These
opportunities could include allowing for the consideration of future climate risks
in each agency’s cost-effectiveness analysis, or amending regulations to remove
preferences for in-kind replacement over relocation. 

2.            Identify
opportunities for state transportation agencies to better situate themselves to
adapt assets after a disaster declaration. 
These opportunities include updating state design standards or the
AASHTO green book to account for climate change in the design and construction
of transportation assets, or consider future climate impacts to the
transportation system in hazard mitigation plans or transportation plans or in
cost-effective analysis.


Conduct legal and policy analysis and draft a
report analyzing the legal barriers to using disaster relief funds to adapt
transportation assets.  The report would
also provide recommendations for how federal and state transportation agencies
can better promote adaptation during disaster recovery, including (1) the
opportunities for federal agencies to use existing authority to allow for
adaptation during rebuilding, and (2) the opportunities for state agencies to
ensure that they can be reimbursed for adaptive rebuilding, in advance of a
disaster declaration. The report would also include case studies of examples
where disaster relief funding has been used to increase the resilience of a
transportation facility (including any examples of where climate change or
sea-level rise projections were factored into the project design, siting, or
cost-benefit analyses, and the opportunities and challenges to doing so).  In developing the report we would consult
with transportation and disaster relief experts from state and federal
agencies, metropolitan planning organizations, and professional organizations
(AASHTO, association of floodplain managers etc.).

Urgency and Payoff

By considering climate change in the design
and construction of assets, we can ensure the long-term viability of
reconstructed assets and the sustainability of our public investments.  The goal of this project would be to effect
policy changes at the federal and state levels to ensure that all
transportation agencies are considering the impact of climate change to
transportation facilities, and facilitating the adaptation of assets,
particularly during the critical disaster recovery stage.


The anticipated user community should include
state and local officials (state DOTs, MPOs, Regional Transit Authorities),
Federal agencies (the FHWA, US Department of Transportation, Federal Transit
Administration and FEMA) and the American Association of State Highway Transportation
Officials (AASHTO).

Suggested By

Brant Arthur on behalf of Jessica Grannis (Georgetown University Law Center) TRB Special Task Force on Climate Change and Energy 7074779946

[email protected]