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Back to the beginning

My World's on Fire
Back to the beginning
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #57 • View online
Thanks for reading my World’s on Fire, a weekly newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. If you found this dispatch interesting, I hope you’ll subscribe!

This week is part two of my look into the FEMA Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program. If you missed part one, give that a read now – or, if you want a primer on the program, check out this edition from May.
Last week, I introduced Kris Smith of Headwaters Economics to talk about her analysis of the shortlisted BRIC applicants. During our conversation, she mentioned her experience working on an application herself, and we ended up taking a bit of a detour to talk about that process – enough that I wanted to dedicate a second newsletter to shining a bit more light on what it takes to even get in the running for a BRIC grant. 
Smith has been working with the small community of Three Forks, Montana to address the area’s significant flood risk. When they decided to go for a BRIC grant, Smith said they discovered the process was a “huge lift” requiring significant effort, interagency coordination, and costs just to become eligible.
“We had to work really closely with the county to try to get them to resubmit their kind of outdated hazard mitigation plan back to FEMA to get approved,” she said as one example, noting that “the timing was really tight.” 
And then: “There are all kinds of building codes that, if you have in place, you get points; if you don’t have in place, you don’t get the points. And of course, many rural and lower-capacity places in the U.S. don’t have things like that.” 
Along with the help provided through Headwaters Economics, Smith said the Three Forks community was able to hire an engineer for assistance, an expense many smaller communities cannot afford. So, just meeting the standards for the grant can be a significant barrier itself, Smith explained.
“Of course hazard mitigation planning and building codes are best practices, and you want to see communities do it,” she said. “The problem is when you’re a small enough community that you just can’t, and there are no resources that are provided to help you implement it, and you just get stuck.”
It’s a challenge I’ve heard in my ongoing reporting on BRIC from communities that were not able to get an application together due to logistical hurdles, as well as those that did attempt to apply but failed to meet FEMA’s criteria for various reasons. Journalist Bracey Harris compiled more stories for NBC News from communities across the country that failed to receive BRIC funding, many of which echoed similar concerns. Harris wrote that the grant design was also prohibitive for some since it requires communities to make some contributions to their proposed projects:
“The long list of more than 500 communities that received no funding — many without the resources to prepare for extreme weather on their own — has raised concerns among environmental justice and civil rights advocates that better resourced communities won big, while disadvantaged areas remain in need. In some cases, that’s because poorer communities don’t have the money for the matching part of the grant, or lack the resources to prepare a competitive grant application.”
In the weeks that followed FEMA’s announcement of the final-round applicants, the agency has restated its commitment to reaching more vulnerable communities through the BRIC program, saying in a recent press release, “BRIC’s guiding principles have been revised to reduce future losses and promote equity, including prioritizing assistance that benefits disadvantaged communities.” 
Those revisions include reworking the scoring criteria to “incentivize mitigation actions that consider climate change and future conditions, populations impacted and economically disadvantaged rural communities.” The agency is also pledging to assist 20 communities with project development, up from 10 last year. You can see here the full list of changes FEMA has implemented for its next round of BRIC funding, which will open up for applications in September.
As for Three Forks, the community Smith assisted, their application made it through multiple levels of review before failing to move forward in this final round. It wasn’t “super unexpected,” she said, acknowledging the gap between the need and the funds available, but she is hopeful the agency will make their decision process more transparent moving forward.
“I was debriefing with our state folks [about] what happened with this grant, and they had absolutely no information to give us,” she said. “I mean, we were really excited to hear, like, how did we score? What could we do better if we want to resubmit? And it’s a bit of a black box.”
Others I’ve spoken with on this topic say this rejection is the end of the road for their projects – they simply can’t afford to apply again.
While I’ll be back to your regularly scheduled newsletter programming next week, I’m still reporting on this topic for other outlets, and I would love to hear your thoughts or any lingering questions. If you’re interested in continuing newsletter coverage around BRIC, be sure to let me know that, too, so I can keep it coming! Reply to this email to reach me directly or hit me up on Twitter. A special thanks to Kris Smith from Headwaters Economics again for taking the time to speak with me in-depth about this complex topic.
As always...
thank you for reading and subscribing to My World’s on Fire. I got some exciting news about this newsletter this week, and it made me even more grateful for the support you’ve all given me with this project so far. I can’t wait to share it with you later this month!
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#nonaturaldisasters There is weather for sure, but the disaster is a human phenomenon. We need to think about #DisasterJustice in prep and recovery, and we need to stop burning fossil fuels! Great work from @colleenhagerty
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