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Explore our latest coverage of environmental issues, climate change and more.

After Irene, Investigation Shows FEMA Isn't Rebuilding To Withstand Climate Change

Toby Talbot
FEMA funds won't pay to rebuild damaged structures stronger than before, leaving them vulnerable again as climate change fuels bigger storms.

This month marks four years since Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont. In the aftermath, President Barack Obama vowed the Federal Emergency Management Agency would be there to help with recovery. But an investigationby the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and AlJazeeraAmerica found FEMA hasn't exactly been prepared for the new normal of climate change. 

It was especially true when it came to the hundreds of destroyed bridges and culverts in Vermont. Reporter Elizabeth Shogren conducted the investigation and she joins us to talk about what she found.

On FEMA's rules about replacing structures after a disaster

"What Sharon learned and many other towns across Vermont learned is that the infrastructure that they have and they rely on is just not up to the challenges that climate change is bringing their community. And so when they were trying to replace, rebuild these bridges they went to FEMA... which is charged by Congress with helping communities when disaster befalls them. It pays the to replace the lion's share of these facilities. But the way FEMA's rules were constructed, they're supposed to replace what was there before with the same thing — it's called an "in-kind" replacement. And the problem is, if you replace a bridge that's just gotten washed away in a storm that might have been stronger because of climate change, you're just setting yourself up for more destruction in the future. As one of the town leaders told me, 'It's turning us into sitting ducks.'"


"As one of the town leaders told me, 'It's turning us into sitting ducks.'" - Elizabeth Shogren, investigative reporter

On what Vermont showed the nation about working with FEMA

"It's a mixed picture, some of the towns just had to go ahead and replace with what FEMA wanted them to do. Other towns dug their heels in.  I think what you saw with Irene is your state kind of woke up to the new changes that climate changes is bringing it. And the officials in the state got it. Their problem was they were crashing heads with FEMA when they were trying to do what they knew their communities needed. It's a really interesting example that actually has become the poster child for the rest of the country when they find themselves the victims of disaster and try to figure out, 'how do we possibly use FEMA to help us?' Then they look back to what Vermont went through. "

Annie Russell was VPR's Deputy News Director. She came to VPR from NPR's Weekends on All Things Considered and WNYC's On The Media. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School.
Alex was a reporter and host of VPR's local All Things Considered. He was also the co-host and co-creator of the VPR program Brave Little State.
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