Tool to help local officials still ‘under review’ months later
HUD chief says climate assessment best left to scientists
Just a few months before a pair of blockbuster hurricanes hit Florida and Texas, the Trump administration received detailed guidelines from consultants for factoring climate change into how federal aid is spent.
Yet the recommendations, developed to help local officials consider climate risk when they use Department of Housing and Urban Development grants, have stayed under wraps even as the government prepares to disburse billions of dollars to storm victims.
The "Community Resilience Toolkit" was commissioned last year by the Obama administration and delivered to HUD leadership in April. Former officials say the Trump administration’s delay in releasing the report may lie with its skepticism of global warming.
HUD is looking for a way "to tone it down," said Harriet Tregoning, who oversaw the project as head of HUD’s Office of Community Planning and Development for President Barack Obama. She said she believes current officials "didn’t want to directly contradict some of the other messages coming out of the administration."
Brian Sullivan, a department spokesman, said the toolkit is still "under review" and gave no timeline for releasing it.
The 50-page document is part of an initiative under Obama to spend federal money in a way that reflects the likely effects of climate change. Trump has reversed other elements of that initiative, including a requirement restricting federal infrastructure investments in flood plains.
The stakes for rebuilding decisions are enormous. Congress has already approved $7.4 billion in grants after Harvey; Texas Governor Greg Abbott has said his state alone could require $120 billion in federal aid.
HUD Secretary Ben Carson, when asked during a press conference Wednesday how his department would ensure that local officials account for future risks when spending disaster aid, said that his staff was "taking into consideration, you know, the flood plains."
"We’re all concerned about the environment," Carson said. "In terms of long-term assessment of climate change, I think that’s something we should leave to the climatologists."
That’s the wrong approach, according to Shana Udvardy, a climate preparedness specialist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.
"The nation is reeling from repetitive billion-dollar disasters from flooding to wildfires," Udvardy said. "HUD’s leadership on how communities can build back smarter and safer is needed now more than ever."
Last year, the housing department issued a regulation requiring cities that receive Community Development Block Grants to consider climate risks as a condition of those grants. To help officials meet that requirement, the department paid Abt Associates, a consulting firm in Boston, to develop the toolkit.
The Office of Economic Development, the division inside HUD that was chiefly responsible for the toolkit, sent a version to senior HUD officials for their approval in April, according to a person familiar with the process.
Joel Smith, the Abt researcher in charge of the project, confirmed that Abt had done the work and that it had been sent to HUD earlier this year. He declined to provide a copy, or to discuss in detail what it contained.
A draft obtained by Bloomberg addresses six types of natural hazards: rising temperatures and extreme heat, sea-level rise and coastal storms, inland flooding, wildfires, drought, and erosion and landslides. Those hazards, according to the draft, were included "because they already pose risks to communities and there is strong scientific consensus that these risks will change in the future."
The document explains how local officials can estimate future exposure to those risks, and provides "possible actions your community can undertake to reduce the potential effects from natural hazards and become more resilient," including planning decisions, building codes and zoning laws.
For places threatened by sea-level rise, for example, the document suggests that officials create an inventory of their most vulnerable buildings and infrastructure; focus new development away from the riskiest areas; acquire and preserve open spaces as buffers against the water; elevate utilities; and invest in both natural and man-made barriers to blunt the force of storm surges.
There’s strong demand among local officials for the type of information contained in the report, according to Jessica Grannis, adaptation program manager at the Georgetown Climate Center.
"A lot of them struggle to figure out, how do they use federal resources in ways that maximize the resilience value," Grannis said. "They’re making huge investments that affect the most vulnerable populations."
Kristin Baja, a former climate resilience planner for the city of Baltimore who worked with Abt Associates and HUD staff on the tool, said its value was in challenging local officials to incorporate future risks into their current decisions.
"Priorities have shifted," Baja said. When asked why she thought the document hasn’t been released, she said "It’s become much more of a political game, rather than looking at the realities of the situation we’re in and thinking about what’s best for people."
— With assistance by Joe Light