President Trump signed S3418, the STORM Act [safeguarding tomorrow through ongoing mitigation], into law on New Year’s Day, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to grant money to cities and towns to create resilience revolving loan funds for infrastructure projects.

The standalone STORM Act includes a $200-million authorization to fund projects, but that money will not be distributed until 2022. There are spending authorizations for $100 million each in fiscal years 2022 and 2023 in the bill.

“Hopefully, the $200 million will be appropriated to allow us to work on these disaster mitigation projects,” said Mayor Robert Gallagher of Bettendorf, Iowa.

The Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, a coalition of 100 mayors from across the Mississippi River corridor in 10 states spanning from Minnesota to Louisiana, worked with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Society of Civil Engineers to push for the bipartisan bill.

The STORM Act authorizes the FEMA Administrator to provide capitalization grants to states to establish the revolving funds and to provide “hazard mitigation assistance to reduce risks from disasters and natural hazards." 

Ron Seymour, coordinator of the Capital Investment Program for Red Wing, Minn., said being better prepared before disasters occur is crucial for local governments.

“Communities know that they need to take the initiative to be proactive rather than reactive in disaster situations,” he said. “This was especially evident during and after the devastating, long-term Mississippi River flooding and high-water event of 2019. The program would give local governments the ability to implement planned preemptive projects to mitigate future cost impact to local public infrastructure.”

Tom Smith, executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said in a statement that the law “is an important step towards improving resilience and planning for communities across the country. As civil engineers, we’re thinking about building infrastructure that will last 50 to 100 years or more. The opportunity to build strategically is now.”

Gallagher said building projects that are more resistant to storms, flooding, high winds, fire and other disasters before they occur is smarter and less expensive than repairing a facility or structure after it has been damaged.

Reducing costs “is a great pay back,” Gallagher said. “If we can get more resilient we won’t need FEMA as much.”

The U.S. Government Accountability Agency (GAO) said in a 2019 report there was $183 billion in appropriations for disaster assistance after big disasters over the previous three years.

Since 1980, the U.S. has experienced 254 climate and weather disasters each causing more than $1 billion in damage each and totaling over $1.7 trillion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The MRCTI is lobbying the incoming Biden administration to name a White House Chief Resilience Officer, whose job it would be to help coordinate various efforts across state lines.

“We have a very hard time right now working between two states on these projects,” Gallagher said. “An officer could help us manage activities in resilience across a federal platform.”

He said, for instance, that a community in one state might have access to grants or funds from a federal program while a neighbor across the border does not. 

“It’s difficult for communities in different states to get matching funds to do large scale projects,” he said. “But what happens in Minnesota affects us in Iowa and in other states along the corridor. It would be nice if we could coordinate use of funds so they are used efficiently.”

In addition to making structures more resilient, Gallagher said the loan fund could be used for green infrastructure projects such as for better water storage on large riverfront developments. While the MRCTI has been calling for the establishment of resilience revolving loan funds for more than three years, the law also allows any state or Indian tribal government to ask FEMA for grants to establish such funds.

Neither Gallagher nor Seymour said they have identified any specific projects that they would make more resilient, but said they have plenty of options.

Gallagher cited a sewage treatment plant in Davenport, Iowa, that came within inches of going underwater in the 2019 flood.

The plant serves Bettendorf, Riverdale and Panorama Park, Iowa.

“If we’d wanted to spend money (before the flood) to make it more resilient the money wasn’t there,” Gallagher said. “And if it had flooded, FEMA would’ve had to pay to bring to bring it back (into service.)”