How Municipalities Can Avoid Common Disaster Relief Pitfalls

Four ways to prepare for FEMA’s EHP review

NYSDHSES (New York State Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services) and FEMA’s program and funding necessities were realized after several storm-related disasters within the last five years. These events include Hurricane Irene (DR-4020), Tropical Storm Lee (DR-4039), Hurricane Sandy (DR-4085) and the lesser known New York Severe Storms and Flooding (DR-4129). Storm recovery efforts were challenging and municipalities across New York State and neighboring states have had to come to grips with resiliency planning.

DHS3With growing vulnerability and changing weather patterns, it’s essential that communities work to plan for future disasters. Part of that planning process, though, is understanding how to navigate FEMA’s funding and filling out all of the correct paperwork.

One of the most overwhelming parts of FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Assistance (HMA) Program is the requirement to comply with all applicable environmental and historic preservation laws and regulations. Consequently, all HMA grants must undergo an Environmental and Historic Preservation (EHP) review.

In addition to the checklist that is provided to ensure applicants receive the funding needed, there are several other things to consider.

The LA Group team has personnel with experience and familiarity with the EHP review requirements and they recommend the following four areas of preparation:

1. Answer the standard questions

The public assistance team members are required to complete a standard set of questions that set the stage for the EHP review. These will include:

  • Whether the project is within a coastal zone, a FEMA floodplain, wetland or coastal high hazard zone, a coastal barrier or pristine lands
  • Whether the repairs or reconstruction will change the pre-disaster footprint
  • Requesting a hazard mitigation proposal
  • Clarifying if you believe the project will have public involvement or possible political roadblocks
  • Whether the building or facility is listed on the National Register of historic places or state historic listing and whether the building is more than 50 years old

2. Provide a list of possible environmental permits needed

Not on the checklist, but equally important, is the list of possible environmental permits. A general note is typically added that confirms the applicant was advised of their responsibility to obtain any necessary permits from the local, state and federal government prior to any construction or debris removal. Applicants may not always be aware, and certainly at times of emergency, may not consider the need for permits when undertaking repair operations. And while the state and federal agencies will often issue Emergency Permits for certain activities, they are limited in scope and duration and are not substitutes for other permits for work outside the intended scope. Agencies may not be in a position to issue “after the fact” permits, and lack thereof may jeopardize funding.

3. Consider endangered species

Another aspect falling under the umbrella of other environmental issues includes endangered species considerations. The presence of endangered species in certain locations may require that work be curtailed until after the normal brooding, spawning or nesting seasons. Learning ahead of time where such species may exist and the particular limitations imposed by the state or federal endangered species laws can greatly reduce the potential problems of inadvertent disturbances and facilitate timing and review protocols. For coastal projects, coastal zone management requirements may involve a consistency or National Marine Fisheries review.

4. Include copies of applicable permits

The most commonly overlooked element in project worksheets is the inclusion of copies of applicable permits for the project that is completed or pending completion. In most cases, permits may be little more than the signing of a declaration of consistency with an emergency permit, or the acquisition of a permit that the agencies expedite during disaster relief periods. Applicants need also be aware that a NEPA finding is required for all projects. While most fall under a Statutory or Categorical Exclusion, improved projects, or projects for which a facility is relocated, may involve an Environmental Assessment.

In Summary

Municipalities need to be prepared and equipped to deal with the FEMA disaster teams that, as guests to the State’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, will go through the necessary steps to assess the damages and provide recovery assistance. In addition to the normal insurance review and planning processes, the project may need to be reviewed by the critical infrastructure and hazard mitigation cadres, plus the required Environmental and Historic Preservation (EHP) cadre.

The best approach to avoid the potential pitfalls of the FEMA Environmental and Historic Preservation review is to seek the assistance of professionals with hands-on experience and knowledge. The best time to prepare is before the disaster strikes. Identifying the regulatory pitfalls while implementing resiliency planning efforts will help speed the review process in the unfortunate event of a disaster declaration.

Feature image of Hurricane Sandy courtesy of NOAA

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