The pandemic is resulting in some of the greatest disaster impacts in US history. Government funds can help revive the nation’s economic engine.
COVID-19 is anything but a typical disaster. In addition to the dramatic disruptions to our normal ways of life, the recovery will likely present atypical funding opportunities and the potential to transform our future.
Echoing the “we’re all in this together” message in nearly every COVID-19 television advertisement we see right now, all states and territories have a major disaster declaration in place at the same time. It’s also the first time that major disaster declarations have been approved for a virus threat, opening a range of support from the federal government.
While many governors have requested the “full suite” of possible support that accompanies a declaration, only a small number of those have been approved. To date, approvals for all US states include Direct Federal Assistance and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Public Assistance Category B—Emergency Protective Measures, which will provide much needed reimbursement to eligible healthcare facilities and jurisdictions. Various other approvals for some states, such as crisis counseling, have been granted. Approvals for additional FEMA support could be granted over the next few months and could include the ability to fund projects for:
- Transportation, public infrastructure facilities, and recreational facilities
- Hazard-mitigation measures for pandemics and other hazards
- Individual and unemployment assistance (e.g., Stafford Act Section 410)
- Business/economic support
Anything but a typical disaster
In a typical natural disaster, FEMA support is provided to rebuild disaster-stricken communities. However, in a typical disaster, damage and infrastructure impacts are more obvious. This pandemic has brought an atypical mix of damages beyond the immediate “force account” and emergency protective measures that are not as easily identified or quantified. This makes justifying additional sources of FEMA funding more challenging but not impossible.
_q_tweetable:It’s the first time that major disaster declarations have been approved for a virus threat, opening a range of support from the federal government._q_Arguably, COVID-19 is resulting in some of the greatest disaster impacts (i.e., damage) ever experienced, thus justifying the approval of additional FEMA assistance. At a minimum we should consider hazard mitigation, economic recovery, and social program support. Approving additional FEMA support will also greatly increase the amount of grant funding for FEMA’s new pre-disaster, hazard-mitigation grant program, known as Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC), which will be initiated sometime this fall, creating additional FEMA resources to help communities recover with resilience in mind.
Of note, congressional appropriations also provide recovery funding through other federal agencies. These include the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (including Community Development Block Grants - Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) and CDBG-Mitigation), the Economic Development Administration, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among a host of others.
In the recent past, Congress has leveraged existing funding programs from the Department of Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, and other agencies to support economic recovery. The expectation is that, along with FEMA and other emergency response and recovery programs, these programs will once again be tapped to expeditiously distribute stimulus and recovery funding to communities. Currently, congressional support is response-focused, with legislation like the $2.3 trillion CARES Act, but future bills for recovery packages are anticipated soon.
A more resilient, post-COVID-19 era
If there is any upside to the unfathomable suffering and disruption this event has caused, it is that recovery funding could help transform our communities and usher in a more resilient, post-COVID-19 era. That era would recognize and work to manage a continued virus threat, and provide the potential to renew, retrofit, and infuse resilience into our new normal way of life.
As most of us are hunkered down at home, limiting the pollution caused by vehicles and industry, we’ve seen firsthand that this behavior achieves bluer skies, clearer water, and a healthier earth. Our challenge comes in achieving this without wreaking havoc on our economy, which is where COVID-19 recovery funding comes in.
Not only can we jump start our economy with this funding, it can also be used to safeguard our communities against future natural disaster threats (including climate change), advance our industries using more sustainable technologies, and lean into technology that propels human capabilities.
Revving our nation’s economic engine
As these funding sources begin to come to light, they are likely to be marked by flexibility to fast-track use and rev our nation’s economic engine. (In fact, we’re already seeing this with the Category B funding for which FEMA developed a simplified online application.) Here are some areas where your community may be able to leverage disaster recovery funding to transform to a more resilient post-COVID-19 community:
- Planning and studies
- Hazard-mitigation planning, including pandemics
- Develop or update your community’s hazard-mitigation plan (a FEMA-approved, community-adopted plan is a critical requirement to access FEMA hazard mitigation funding sources)
- Economic development planning and analysis
- Evaluate strengths and weaknesses of regional economies and attract investments that provide greater protection from future economic shocks and fill gaps highlighted by COVID-19
- Conduct supply chain analysis to optimize regional supply chains for food, equipment and supplies, and vaccine production
- Emergency management procedures
- Evaluate and modify your community’s traditional response/recovery procedures including sheltering, distribution of essential goods and services, and Emergency Operations Center functions
- Financial planning
- Integrate affordability analyses and consider short- and long-term impacts to vulnerable populations. Run scenarios, identify strategies, and create revised budgets to address likely financial impacts on your community as well as your citizens
- Strategic funding planning
- Understand your funding options and constraints for critical activities and projects. Keep a list of shovel-ready projects that can be tied to likely funding sources so you can act quickly as these sources become available
- Hazard-mitigation planning, including pandemics
- Enhanced technology
- Expand and enhance broadband infrastructure for greater coverage, speed, and access
- Transition to virtual operations including virtual Emergency Operations Centers
- Develop testing, tracing, and supported isolation procedures
- Transition to automation and advanced manufacturing
- Install smart city technology for use in tracking the number of occupants in buildings or more precise weather forecasts for evacuation planning
- Built environment
- Prepare existing facilities and infrastructure for climate change impacts
- Retrofit exiting homeless and disaster shelters to accommodate sheltering with social distancing measures
- Conduct commercial real estate use studies
- Review office and retail use impacts considering social distancing measures. Companies may look to limit the number of employees in the office at once and/or continue to promote working from home, which can impact the market demand
- Transition to micro-grids and renewable energy sources
- Purchase generators to promote continued power in existing critical facilities
- Install multimodal infrastructure (bike, e-scooters) to encourage non-automotive transportation
- Enhance public transportation systems by increasing the number of vehicles, implementing negative air pressurization, and increasing speed to limit the time riders spend in the vehicle
- Community amenities
- Install handwashing stations and testing stations
- Post signage and markers to promote social distancing while using parks
- Expand recreation spaces, which may also reduce risk to flooding, hurricanes, and wildfire, for example
Perhaps most notable are the social benefits that could result from these transformations. Recovering from this disaster, we should focus on areas that make us collectively stronger and less vulnerable. If we lean into the transformation, we may emerge from this global pandemic better than when we started. After all, we are all in this together.
This is the second in a multi-part blog series on how communities can prepare for the various streams of COVID-19 stimulus funding. Read Part 1 here: The new “shovel ready”: Preparing for COVID-19 infrastructure stimulus funding
About the authors
Caroline Cunningham has a strong passion for protecting communities. Her disaster planning expertise—understanding threats, mitigating vulnerabilities, and implementing a path for a resilient future—is impressive. Her disaster management and resilience experience is informed by a broad understanding of government policy, risk assessments, and disaster-grant programs.
Amy Broughton supports municipal and utility clients as they secure funding for critical infrastructure projects. She pulls together technical implementation details, financial plans, and funding opportunities to move projects from concept to reality.