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FEMA Office Focuses on Environmental Planning and Historic Preservation

April 2022

Kristin Leahy Fontenot, Director, FEMA’s Office of Environmental Planning & Historic Preservation.

From planning how to protect endangered species during recovery efforts after a disaster to addressing environmental justice concerns, FEMA’s Office of Environmental Planning and Historic Preservation (EHP) has a broad mission. For the office’s director, Kristin Leahy Fontenot, this work is rooted in FEMA’s mission to help shape stronger, more resilient communities.

“Preparedness and environmental/historic preservation considerations are an important partnership. I often think about the importance of knowledge or awareness of cultural and environmental resources in communities before a natural disaster even happens and how these non-renewable aspects of a community need to be part of community preparedness and recovery from disasters. Are local and state planning efforts on how to respond to and recover from a disaster considering these critical resources that continue to make the community special?”

Those resources are in more places than many people realize, Fontenot said. For example, flooding and wildfire can have significant impacts on endangered species and their habitat. Last year, 92 percent of FEMA’s grants occurred in the same locations where endangered species habitat is also located. Preparedness and recovery efforts need to take all facets of the environment into account, she said.

Similarly, EHP evaluates buildings and archaeological resources that are part of a community’s history and tell people today and into the future the unique local and national significance of the places we call home. “These resources, too, must be considered when we think about how to advance communities through recovery and into the future. Our futures depend on recognizing the importance of the past. For FEMA, this is so important as our partnerships with states and local communities span all states, territories, and tribal lands,” said Fontenot, who previously served as Environmental and Cultural Resource Manager for the U.S. Army and Cultural Resource Manager/Architectural Historian for the National Guard.

Part of that future means confronting climate change, which Fontenot said increasingly impacts EHP’s work.

“Cities and towns, located in areas likely to experience an increase in floods or other natural disasters, have important histories that are part of what makes the United States special, and those resources and artifacts are at risk,” she said. “In addition, floodplains, for example, are areas where many of our nation’s endangered species exist. The increased complexities of these aspects of our work as we grapple with the climate crisis cannot be understated.”

Her office partners with FEMA’s Individual Assistance program to help identify safe temporary housing for disaster survivors. For example, after hurricanes, EHP has worked to find places for housing that aren’t in areas of high risk for future flooding that could occur while the survivors are housed there.

Fontenot points out that historically underserved communities are likelier to live in areas that have the highest level of impacts from climate change. The EHP team must consider environmental justice impacts that can result from FEMA grants.

“Environmental justice in its broadest sense is achieved when everyone has the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work,” she said.

“As disasters continue, the equity issues associated with environmental justice continue to increase in scope. FEMA’s responsibility as we move forward is to remain keenly aware of how we ensure the equal considerations of all communities—in our case, specifically regarding their exposure to environmental hazards.”

While environmental challenges can be daunting, communities and individuals can tailor their preparedness efforts to become more resilient. Fontenot suggests to:

  • Learn about the cultural and environmental resources where you live and what kind of protections they might need.
  • Consider how inequality might be impacting your community and how disaster preparedness decisions can exacerbate those inequities.
  • Be open minded to different opinions and consult with the whole community. Fontenot notes that one of the strengths of environmental and preservation laws is that they require the public to have opportunities to comment on Federally-funded actions before they occur. This is an opportunity for individuals to voice their perspectives on how decisions are made while engaging their local government.

Learn more about FEMA’s climate change programs and initiatives in the recent report FEMA Resources for Climate Resilience.

This article first appeared in the monthly Individual and Community Preparedness Newsletter. Subscribe here

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