Earlier this month, Congress passed, with bipartisan support, legislation that will empower communities at heightened risk of natural disasters. Its goal is to help those places implement preventative measures and curb the impacts of future events. The Community Disaster Resilience Zones (CDRZ) Act amends the 1988 Stafford Act with a requirement that FEMA regularly update datasets that define natural hazard risk factors across the U.S., from flooding and extended droughts to wildfires and extreme heat, which will be leveraged to designate communities that are most in need. Notably, once signed into law, it will authorize the President to provide critical funding for pre-disaster planning.

Exactly how key measures of the Act will be implemented, or if federal criteria for what defines a community itself will be amended, are yet to be seen. Even so, many architects are applauding the bill’s passage as a watershed moment.

“It gives communities the ability to build capacity through pre-disaster mitigation adaptation, and ultimately, that’s the work of design professionals at the community level,” says Illya Azaroff, founder of Brooklyn-based resilience consulting firm +LAB. He also highlights the potential for architects to assist their own communities in developing public-private partnerships which could be used to fast-track infrastructure investments and consequently lessen those communities’ risk profiles. “That part is huge. We’re finally talking about people,” he says.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a reputation for showing up in the wake of natural disasters, notes Azaroff, rather than as a bulwark for at-risk communities who may lack the tools and wherewithal to adapt. And while the agency does maintain a National Risk Index, its data are derived from historic losses of real estate, infrastructure, and land mass, with minimal consideration given to matters of social and economic equity that can likewise determine a community’s risk assessment.

“It is abundantly clear that more must be done to help at-risk communities who, too often, bear the brunt of the impacts from climate change. The CDRZ Act will significantly help these communities receive the tools and resources they need to prepare their communities for the next major disaster,” says Emily Grandstaff-Rice, the recently inaugurated president of the American Institute of Architects.

Previously, the only significant pre-disaster mitigation program was FEMA’s BRIC (Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities) program. “It's not enough money and it’s competitive to apply,” Azaroff says. “Although meaningful to the communities that get it, it's a drop in the bucket in comparison to what [CDRZ] designation might unlock funding for.”

When it comes to resiliency planning, rarely does conjecture lead to optimism. It’s often looked upon, somewhat cynically, as a zero-sum game. But the CDRZ Act could yield net positives. For example, the bill’s funding apparatus has enormous crossover potential with incentive programs that are baked into the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), such as the scaling up of renewable energy resources like wind, solar, and geothermal, which are key to resiliency and equity efforts, especially at the local level. 

For some at-risk communities that pop the brightest on FEMA’s risk index map, the only real long-term resiliency strategy may be managed retreat. Low-risk cities, or so-called “Goldilocks” zones (not too hot, not too cold), could receive an influx of climate refugees within the next half century, placing an enormous strain on their infrastructure. Pre-disaster mitigation could take the form of upgrading and diversifying energy systems for such communities on the rise.

There is also the issue of how communities are categorized within FEMA’s Community Rating System (CRS), a voluntary program that encourages community floodplain management practices that exceed baseline requirements. As it stands, New York City is defined as one community, as are each of the eight Hawaiian Islands. But clearly each of these examples represents a vast composite of communities with diverse risk factors and resources. “Architects working in disaster resilience know that for many communities at repeated risk, financial or human capital may not be available,” says Grandstaff-Rice. To qualify as a Resilience Zone and obtain pre-disaster funding, smaller communities, public housing authorities and the like would benefit from the autonomy to advocate on their own behalf, based on the climate hazards knocking on their front door.  

The unknowns surrounding implementation of the CDRZ Act are numerous, but not insurmountable. This important step of equipping high-risk communities with a larger funding pipeline for pre-disaster mitigation, rather than post-disaster clean up, is undoubtedly cause for optimism.