Barriers and opportunities to build resilient infrastructure

Robyn Fennig is the Wisconsin hazard mitigation officer.

Who are you and what is your role?

I am the state hazard mitigation officer for Wisconsin Emergency Management. I oversee state hazard mitigation planning, review tribal, county and local hazard mitigation plans and administer the Hazard Mitigation Assistance (HMA) programs. These grants include the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP), Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC), and Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA) grants.

What climate impacts are you seeing in your work?

From an historical perspective with the role that water played in industry, transportation, and agriculture, it makes sense that people settled near water. After years of changing the landscape, flood hazards have also changed. Now, we spend a lot of time in Hazard Mitigation Assistance programs looking at how to move people and community infrastructure away from water hazards. Along the Great Lakes, water levels are approaching historic highs and we are seeing more people relocating away from the bluffs. In riverine areas, the approach tends to be more reactive to flooding. Communities are doing their best, but need assistance, especially after disasters.

New or upgraded culverts can help with flood resiliency. Photo credit: Robyn Fennig

What are approaches that help?

Hazard mitigation planning is a way for communities to plan for disaster impacts and identify projects and grant opportunities that mitigate risk. It helps communities think beyond disaster response. In many communities, mitigation planning is tied to long-term recovery efforts. We can’t continue to plan for what has happened historically. If we continue to plan for the event that’s already happened, then we are already behind when a disaster strikes.

For disasters that do not receive federal designations, Wisconsin has recovery grants in several state agencies, like the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s Disaster Damage Aids program for roads, Wisconsin Department of Administration’s CDBG Disaster Recovery program for low income individuals and communities, and Wisconsin Emergency Management’s Wisconsin Disaster Fund to help with debris removal, emergency response, and road repairs. These sources can provide some funding to help with local recovery efforts.

Some local governments are moving to a more proactive approach that looks at removing the cause of the flooding. This is where the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Assistance programs come in. Communities can apply for grants to remove repetitively flooded structures and provide residents funding to relocate, make water crossings larger and able to pass high flood flows, restore wetlands or incorporate other nature-based approaches to restore the natural functions of floodplains. These grants provide funding to stop the disaster/repair cycle and become more resilient.

What are the barriers to getting funding?

First and foremost, funding is limited and requires cost sharing. When communities are responding and recovering from extreme weather disasters, meeting a local match requirement can be extremely difficult. Especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, local governments are struggling financially. Moreover, smaller communities often don’t have the capacity or resources to apply.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency frontloads grant requirements to the application phase; the number one barrier for them to access Hazard Mitigation Assistance funding is the Federal Emergency Management Agency Benefit-Cost Analysis. Wisconsin Emergency Management recognizes the limited staffing levels and familiarity with Federal Emergency Management Agency programs for most of our rural and tribal communities and provides technical assistance to help with the process. But even the best projects cannot be cost-effective with the Federal Emergency Management Agency methodology.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency Benefit-Cost Analysis process requires immense data inputs and tends to give more weight for disaster relief to higher valued property. This can be a barrier for communities looking to implement large infrastructure or drainage improvements for flood mitigation.

It can be hard for individuals and small businesses to get assistance grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. If an individual does not meet income restrictions for Community Development Block Grants, it often means that no funding assistance is available for disasters that do not receive federal designation.

Typically, individuals receive more money from a flood insurance claim than Federal Emergency Management Agency Individual Assistance (IA), in the rare event Individual Assistance is available. For businesses, unless we get a Federally declared disaster and Small Business Administration Disaster Loans are available, few options exist. Even when we do have Federal Emergency Management Agency or Small Business Administration funding, it will not make an individual or business whole again.

There are also bureaucratic barriers, especially for communities trying to access funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency Public Assistance (PA) Program, which repairs publicly owned and maintained infrastructure after a federally declared disaster. The Federal Emergency Management Agency requires that communities prove that they own and actively maintain the infrastructure they seek funding/repairs for. This typically means communities need photos, in depth maintenance records and details of what pre-disaster condition looked like. It is hard to meet those even on sunny sky days, let alone when they are responding and recovering from a major disaster.

Generally, the Public Assistance Program only repairs infrastructure back to pre-disaster condition and function, with some limited opportunities to incorporate mitigation measures into repairs. Since Federal Emergency Management Agency Public Assistance staff are generally not mitigation experts, they do not leverage these mitigation opportunities when it is most cost-effective to do so in repair. It forces communities to advocate fiercely for their projects, and if they do not say exactly what is in the Public Assistance guidance, they miss out on mitigation.

How does the Federal Emergency Management Agency work with Wisconsin’s tribal nations?

The Federal Emergency Management Agency competitive grants administered by Wisconsin Emergency Management, like BRIC, include a set-aside for federally recognized tribes. This means that tribal communities can apply directly to Federal Emergency Management Agency (nation-to-nation) or apply through Wisconsin Emergency Management as a sub-applicant.

Wisconsin Emergency Management staff will help tribes apply for grants, including reviewing them for eligibility, technical feasibility, and conducting the Federal Emergency Management Agency Benefit-Cost Analysis, regardless of if Wisconsin Emergency Management or the tribe will directly administer the grant. We do encourage our tribes to apply directly to Federal Emergency Management Agency so they may access additional administrative funding, but are there to help with overall grant management if they do not have the capacity to implement those duties at the time of application.

How does the future look for FEMA funding and addressing barriers?

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, at both the regional and national levels, dedicated time during important meetings of state, municipal, tribal and Federal Emergency Management Agency representatives, to identify opportunities to overcome barriers to accessing and implementing Federal Emergency Management Agency Hazard Mitigation Assistance Funding. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is working with stakeholders at all levels to improve equity in their grant programs and has been mandated to address some of these concerns on a strict timeline.

At the regional level, we feel that our Federal Emergency Management Agency partners really do hear the concerns and opportunities to improve the programs. The fact that they are initiating new conversations with their state, local and tribal partners, makes me feel positively that future change is coming soon.

Do you have hope for the future?

Yes! The new Federal Emergency Management Agency Building Resilient Infrastructure (BRIC) grant program is changing mitigation funding. BRIC prioritizes community-level resilient infrastructure and is getting historically high levels of funding ($1 billion in 2021!).

The Village of Fox Point (Milwaukee County) received a resilient infrastructure grant for coastal protection that helps mimic natural processes. It was also combined with other federal grants to include natural habitat restoration. This project not only protects critical infrastructure and road access for over 30 homes, it combines a traditional coastal engineering with habitat restoration. The project will not just reduce the risk of infrastructure failure, but also help the natural systems be more resilient to coastal storms and lake level fluctuations.

This program also provides extra points for smaller communities. In 2020, Wisconsin Emergency Management supported an application for a stream/road crossing in Forest County. The Forest County Highway Department and the non-profit Trout Unlimited designed an upgraded culvert crossing that supports flood resiliency and improves the natural environment. If selected by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the BRIC national competition, the culvert will pass higher flood flows on the Lily River, reduce the need for debris removal by the highway department, keep the road open for use after heavy rainfall events for residents, improve fish passage and enhance water quality.

This project highlights an opportunity for a local government agency to cost share with an interested non-profit organization, while leveraging federal grant funding opportunities. I hope to see more innovative projects like this one that meet multiple resiliency goals and make Wisconsin a better place to live.

The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the authors and do not represent official policy or position of the University of Wisconsin-Madison or the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts.

For More Information

Robyn Fennig
State Hazard Mitigation Officer
Wisconsin Emergency Management