News from the Columbia Climate School

Climate School Report Details 2023 State Policy Trends in Disaster Resilience

A movie theater in Vermont after a damaging flood
The cleanup after the 2023 historic flood in Montpelier, VT. Photo credit: Lucia Bragg.

As the world continues to grapple with the growing impacts of climate change, we will need to take clear steps to reduce the consequences of ongoing and forecasted catastrophes. On a global level, assemblies like COP28 are increasingly highlighting the urgency of climate adaptation financing. However, it’s also critical to understand what’s happening at the state level and how climate adaptation and disaster resilience priorities are appearing in state laws that govern our approaches and underwrite our resilience efforts. To this end, Columbia Climate School’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) released a new report examining over 600 U.S. state disaster resilience legislation enacted in 2023.

Last year was the costliest year on record for the U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with 28 billion-dollar disasters and 492 associated deaths. In 2023, Vermont experienced its most destructive flood in over a decade, while Hawaii endured the deadliest U.S. wildfire in over a century. As a result of these and other disasters, in August, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was forced to limit the use of the Disaster Relief Fund to only Immediate Needs Funding—or “life-saving and life-sustaining activities”—due to underestimated disaster funding needs for 2023. Meanwhile, on the international level, COP 28 featured an important breakthrough in finally agreeing on a loss and damage fund (a source of assistance to developing countries disproportionately impacted by climate disasters) and garnering $700 million worth of pledges from wealthy countries. However, it took the Parties a decade to do so, and COP ended without a clear pathway to reliable and recurring payments.

On the state level, there was a promising outcome from 2023: Every state government passed some kind of disaster resilience policy last year. Across the 668 state disaster resilience bills enacted, California and Texas led the nation with 61 and 39 bills, respectively; followed by Colorado, Oregon and Florida, with 32, 29 and 29 bills.

A new, more sensitive methodology uncovered over three times as many new laws as last year’s report. Based in part on FEMA’s Community Lifelines, the categories used for this year’s NCDP report include funding, energy, communications, transportation, safety and security, health and medical, food and water, housing, hazardous materials, land use, governance and equity. Several categories also had subcategories. For example, subcategories under “funding” include: assistance to individuals and households, assistance to private and nonprofit sector, assistance to local governments, state government funding, federally related spending, cost-share and insurance. NCDP policy staff analyzed bills identified using a Boolean search function in LexisNexis’ legislative database for relevance to these categories (see Table 1 in the full report for more details).

The most common legislative issues covered were funding, governance and safety and security, relating to 55, 37 and 27 percent of disaster bills. Funding bills include omnibus state budget or standalone appropriations bills that allocate state revenue for state, local, or federal programs relating to everything from cost-share requirements, infrastructure projects, insurance programs, disaster recovery packages and more. Governance bills establish or reform a range of administrative authorities relating to disaster resilience, such as creating new positions (for example, chief resilience officer), reforming jurisdictions or requirements of existing agencies, facilitating intergovernmental coordination, enacting new reporting requirements or otherwise.

Graph depicting frequency of category use
Funding bills by frequency of category use.
Graph of funding bills by sucategory
Funding bills by subcategory use.

Bills relating to critical infrastructure, across energy, transportation and communications categories, represented a third (223) of all bills. These bills improve the resilience of the electric grid (by addressing redundancies, infrastructure improvements or efficiency), transportation systems (e.g., evacuation routes, emergency vehicles, strategic plans), and emergency communications (e.g., 911 systems, telecom infrastructure, emergency alerts or awareness campaigns).

Health and human services categories—including housing, health and medical, and food and water—were relevant to 290 bills, or nearly half of all bills. These bills ensure basic services remain available despite disaster impacts or address housing needs across all stages of a disaster. The report also explored legislation addressing equity concerns within the disaster space. States enacted 74 of these bills, which aim to ensure disaster assistance is accessible to underserved populations—minority, low-income, elderly, gender/LGBTQ+ and rural populations—or that underrepresented communities are better included in disaster planning.

Overall, this report reflects legislative activity between January 1 and December 5, 2023. While the vast majority of states had adjourned their sessions for the year at that time, others were at different stages and all states have unique disaster risk profiles. It is important to note that legislative activity may not reflect the quality or size of implementation or impact—areas that may be worthy of separate analyses in the future.

Lucia Bragg is a policy manager at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Columbia Climate School.

Abigail Menendez was an intern at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Columbia Climate School and a 2023 graduate in the M.A. in Climate and Society Program at the Columbia Climate School.

Gillian McBride was a student employee at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Columbia Climate School and a 2023 graduate of the M.P.A. in Energy and Environmental Policy Program at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs.

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