New Orleans didn’t get new federal disaster resilience cash, but FEMA says that’s a good sign
Six areas in Louisiana were recently selected to potentially receive millions of dollars in additional federal funding to mitigate the effects of ecological disasters and climate change. New Orleans — Louisiana’s largest city and one the most disaster-prone in the United States — was not among them. But according to FEMA officials, that’s because billions in federal investments in the city have left it in a better position than many other parts of the state.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced earlier this month that 483 census tracts around the United States were designated as what the agency calls “Community Disaster Resilience Zones.” Communities selected for this new program will be eligible for increased federal dollars by having to pay a smaller share of costs for mitigation and resilience projects, like wetland restoration to help absorb water from floods and planting trees to help communities cool during extreme heat. They also have priority access for funding for these types of projects.
To be selected for the program, census tracts have to be designated as disadvantaged by the federal government or be among the riskiest in the country or state.
New Orleans has census tracts that meet at least one of these requirements, but wasn’t selected because of the amount of federal investment the city has already seen since Hurricane Katrina and the work it’s done in that time to become more resilient.
“There has been significant federal investment in the area over the last two decades placing the city on a positive resilience trajectory,” a FEMA spokesperson said. “FEMA lauds the extensive resilience efforts that have taken place within the New Orleans area and anticipates that resilience will continue to remain a priority.”
Though many residents may question how some post-Katrina money has been spent, New Orleans has seen massive federal investment in rebuilding and hardening infrastructure. Beyond the $14.6 billion upgrade to the levee system that surrounds New Orleans, there was $2 billion for road repairs in the city, $1.8 billion for schools and hundreds of millions more for public building rebuilds and repairs.
For this program, FEMA instead focused on Louisiana communities — including those that have experienced major natural disasters — that have received fewer federal disaster dollars over the years.
And some of the areas selected for the program are close enough to benefit New Orleans, a city official said in an interview. That includes Census tracts in suburban St. Tammany and Jefferson parishes and areas within about an hour’s drive in Terrebonne and Ascension parishes. The two additional parishes selected — Calcasieu Parish, which experienced devastating damage from Hurricane Laura in 2020, and Lafayette Parish — are more far-flung.
“From a regional perspective, increasing resilience in neighboring communities benefits the city by helping to stabilize the interdependent healthcare, housing, and economic systems throughout the area both in view of future disaster impacts and longer-term regional adaptation,” said Austin Feldbaum, hazard mitigation director for the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
Census tracts were selected by FEMA using the National Risk Index, a listing of all of the census tracts in the country that includes a rating gauging their level of natural hazard risk. Those selected were either one of the nation’s 50 riskiest census tracts, in the top 1% of their state when it comes to risk or are designated as a disadvantaged community according to another federal screening tool used to gauge socioeconomic status. Federal legislation also required FEMA to achieve geographical balance in their selections.
There will be two more rounds of selections for the Community Disaster Resilience Zones program, one in the fall for indigenous lands. The other will be based on updates to the National Risk Index, feedback FEMA receives and lessons the agency learns from the initial designations and will happen between late 2024 and mid 2025. The two census tracts in the city currently in the very high risk category, the highest in the index, are in New Orleans East and a span of downtown that includes the Superdome and the Riverwalk outlets.