FEMA Focuses on Environmental Preservation to Fight Climate Change

As the climate changes, FEMA adapts to new challenges. Focusing on protecting the environment is just one of many ways we are addressing the effects of climate change.

Office for Environmental Planning and Monument Preservation (EHP) Director Kristin Fontenot is one of the people at the forefront of this effort.

According to Fontenot, a priority for the office is to help communities build resilience through land protection. They work to ensure that FEMA programs and grants consider the historical and cultural characteristics and environmental resources of the community when building resilience or recovering from a disaster.

Over the past year, the office reviewed over 20,220 public assistance projects to find ways to minimize or mitigate impacts on environmental and cultural resources while recovering from disasters. They mobilized protection of cultural and historical assets during 17 major disasters, reaching out to representatives in 20 states. The Heritage Emergency National Task Force was mobilized in 2021 to help protect cultural and historical assets in all major disasters, with significant outreach to a national network of heritage networks that support these vitally important resources and protect them from permanent loss.

She said heritage preservation plays a big part in her efforts and adds to the challenges.

“Cities and communities located in areas likely to experience increases in flooding or other natural disasters have important histories that are part of what makes the United States special, and these resources and artifacts are at risk “, she said. “The increasing complexity of these aspects of our work as we grapple with the climate crisis cannot be underestimated.”

Fontenot says communities will continue to face new challenges and that FEMA must help those communities rise up to meet them.

“FEMA just released a plan that will guide agency action for the next 5 years,” Fontenot said. “For the first time ever, climate change and equity are two of the three overarching goals of the agency’s priorities.” For Fontenot, this means taking seriously the importance of environmental justice as part of FEMA’s actions. “It is very important to ensure that environmental justice and injustice is part of FEMA’s program delivery. Environmental justice means that we avoid disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental impacts on low-income populations and minorities.”

FEMA, like all federal agencies, must consider the impact of its actions on cultural and environmental resources. There are a variety of laws that provide guidance on how this analysis is part of FEMA’s mission fulfillment. For example:

  • Environmental Impact Assessments. These assessments are used under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to determine whether there will be a significant environmental impact as a result of a FEMA action or a FEMA-sponsored action.
  • Uniform Federal Examinations (UFR). All federally funded projects must undergo an environmental assessment and the The UFR process requires agencies to work together to reduce the complexity of these reviews in disaster recovery.
  • guidelines for FEMA grants. FEMA grants help protect and enhance natural and cultural resources. A condition of certain grants is that they comply with all applicable environmental and historic preservation laws and regulations.

According to Fontenot, there are many ways your community can get involved in efforts to protect the environment. This includes keeping up to date with the cultural and environmental resources in the area where you live and how to protect them. She adds that each individual can make a contribution to combating climate change.

“Every action helps,” she said. “That means participating in your local recycling program, being proactive in reducing pollution and waste, and getting involved with local organizations that are helping to reduce environmental justice issues and environmental hazards in your neighborhood or community.”

You can learn more about FEMA’s climate protection programs and initiatives in the latest FEMA Resources for Climate Resilience report.