Lessons Learned from Irene: Climate Change, Federal Disaster Relief, and Barriers to Adaptive Reconstruction

December 20, 2013

This case study examines the challenges encountered by Vermont localities in trying to use federal disaster relief funds to rebuild their transportation system to be more resilient to future impacts in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.

Irene dumped more than 7 inches of rain on the state over the course of two days, which washed out hundreds of miles of roads and bridges. In the aftermath of the disaster, Vermont set about rebuilding its roads and bridges to higher state standards, but encountered legal barriers when FEMA initially refused to reimburse communities for the added costs.

Vermont’s standards required that culverts be designed to accommodate additional streamflow and to minimize impacts to aquatic species; permits are issued based upon a site-specific analysis. Requiring culverts to be upgraded will increase the resilience of roads and bridges because they will be less likely to be washed out in extreme rain events, which are projected to increase for the state under climate change scenarios.

FEMA, however, initially denied reimbursement arguing that the state standards for rebuilding culverts provided state regulators with too much discretion and thus did not comply with FEMA requirements that standards be “uniform.” The state appealed the decision and ultimately FEMA allowed one locality to be reimbursed and is considering the appeals of other localities.

We use this story of the Vermont appeal to highlight some of the challenges that states and localities face in trying to adapt to climate changes when rebuilding differently after natural disaster.

Lessons Learned From Irene - Finalv2.pdf