Communities across the United States are subject to ever-increasing human suffering and financial impacts of disasters caused by extreme weather events and other natural hazards amplified in frequency and intensity by climate change (IPCC, 2022). According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there were 20 weather disaster events in 2021 with losses exceeding $1 billion each, and 323 weather and climate disasters, including wildfires and drought, since 1980 in which overall damage and costs reached or exceeded $1 billion each. The total cost of these 323 events in 2022 dollars exceeded $2.2 trillion. Missing from this accounting are thousands of less costly hazard events and disasters not meeting the $1 billion threshold. While media coverage sometimes paints these disasters as affecting rich and poor alike and suggests that natural disasters do not discriminate, the reality is that they do. As reiterated at the March 17, 2022, workshop, there have been decades of discriminatory policies, practices, and embedded bias within infrastructure planning processes. Among the source of these policies and practices are the agencies that promote resilience and provide hazard mitigation and recovery services, and the funding mechanisms they employ. These practices have resulted in low-income communities, often predominantly Indigenous people and communities of color, bearing a disproportionate share of the social, economic, health, and environmental burdens caused by extreme weather and other natural disasters. It remains unclear which research strategies can ensure that infrastructure investments help increase resilience and improve equitable decision-making—and do not inadvertently impact—vulnerable and disadvantaged communities.
Toward that end, the Resilient America Program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened two committees to address applied research topics in the field of hazard mitigation and resilience to assist the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in reducing the immense human and financial toll of disasters caused by natural hazards and other large-scale emergencies. FEMA asked the committee to identify applied research topics, information, and expertise that can inform action and collaborative priorities within the natural hazard mitigation and resilience fields. The committee, in consultation with the Resilient America Program, selected two large-scale themes within which to identify applied research topics: Equitable and Resilient Infrastructure Investments and Compounding and Cascading Events. This report examines the first theme, and a subsequent report will consider the second theme.
On the theme of Equitable and Resilient Infrastructure Investments, the committee chose three topics as being particularly important for natural hazard mitigation and resilience: (1) partnerships for equitable infrastructure development, (2) systemic change toward resilient and equitable infrastructure investment, and (3) innovations in finance and financial analysis. The committee selected these topics based on information gained from a 1-day public workshop and committee members’ backgrounds and experience with hazard mitigation and resilience.
On the first topic, the committee found that more focus is needed on how to build the trust essential for establishing ongoing partnerships between researchers and communities that
would enable two-way knowledge transfer and promote actionable research. Furthermore, building similar trust between communities and those providing essential services (governmental entities, communities of practice) will require not only time but considerable effort to understand how trust is manifest community by community. Listening to and valuing the expertise of community members is a key factor for productive partnerships. Applied research is needed on strategies and tactics for regaining or establishing community trust in institutions, governments, and essential service providers where it has been frayed or new partnerships are formed.
On the second topic, the committee identified six areas with key research questions, including how to (1) catalyze and support systemic change in the institutions involved in infrastructure development; (2) develop effective community resilience hubs; (3) engage in community resilience planning; (4) incorporate integrated multi-benefit solutions into resilient and equitable infrastructure planning; (5) link the built and natural environments to benefit communities; and (6) identify the role minimum code requirements can play in developing resilient and equitable infrastructure.
On the third topic, the workshop pointed to the need to develop innovative approaches to economically assess and finance resilient and equitable infrastructure investment. As part of this effort, the committee noted the importance of modifying benefit-cost analysis to account for the economic realities of disadvantaged populations within communities; better reflect the benefits and costs that future generations will realize or incur over time; reflect the distribution of costs and benefits, particularly in relationship to historically affected and underserved populations; and better reflect indirect benefits, such as equity, public health, and community resilience, that can be difficult to monetize.
In addition, the committee discussed several important underlying themes and enabling factors. These enabling factors included increased data collection and transparency, breaking down both financing and research silos, valuing community input, and ensuring that investments reflect community-specific characteristics.