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Here’s how much natural disasters in the West cost federal taxpayers

President Biden on Friday surveyed the devastation from the Marshall fire in Colorado, the latest in an increasing number of fires, floods and other calamities that require federal aid for communities to recover and rebuild

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden talk with people as they tour a neighborhood in Louisville, Colorado, that was impacted by a wildfire.
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden talk with people as they tour a neighborhood in Louisville, Colo., Friday, Jan. 7, 2022, that was impacted by the recent wildfire.
Susan Walsh, Associated Press

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden walked along a street of Louisville, Colorado, surveying a landscape of homes burned to their concrete foundations by a rare winter wildfire last week.

“Not only are you helping each other but we’re here with you, we’re not going to go away,” Biden told residents Friday, according to The Associated Press. “I intend to do what ever it takes as long as it takes to support you.”

The 6,200-acre Marshall Fire caused as estimated $513 million in damage as it destroyed nearly 1,100 homes and businesses. Biden has declared the wildfire a “major disaster,” unlocking federal relief dollars for a scorched community.

The cause of the rare late December wildfire remains under investigation. But reports attributed the rapid spread of the flames to high winds and drought conditions caused by a warming climate. The Boulder County community is among many in the West dealing with natural disasters increasingly attributable to climate change.

Homes burn as a wildfire rips through a development near Rock Creek Village, Dec. 30, 2021, near Broomfield, Colo. In Colorado and other states hit by natural disasters this year, the pandemic has injected extra uncertainty and created more obstacles for families trying to rebuild.
David Zalubowski, Associated Press

To aid these communities, the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides a fund for presidentially declared disasters called the Hazard Mitigation Assistance Grant, which helps communities rebuild and prevent future disasters.

In August, Biden approved $3.46 billion in FEMA grant money to increase hazard mitigation and resilience to the impacts of climate change nationwide.

“Climate change is our country’s biggest crisis,” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said at the time. “Our communities will continue to suffer from losses caused by extreme weather events unless we invest in mitigation efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change.”

FEMA said in an email to the Deseret News that the increasing duration, intensity and severity of natural disasters — which are exacerbated by climate change as well as changes in population, land use and weather patterns — are “alarming and devastating, especially for underserved populations.”

Over the past decade, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, have received nearly $540 million under the FEMA grant program for about 1,100 hazard mitigation projects.

The top five most popular projects these states apply for include management costs (such as salaries, equipment, supplies snd office space), multihazard mitigation plans between governments and partners, generators, vegetation and stormwater management.

But states can be proactive before disaster strikes, too.

FEMA also offers competitive and nonemergency annual disaster programs called “Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities” and “Flood Mitigation Assistance” grants.

In the 11 western states Deseret News examined, FEMA has granted about $214 million to these other projects since 2011.

But with wildfires causing widespread damage in the West the past few years, emergency-based hazard mitigation project grants are still the most sought after and needed, according to FEMA data.

The coastal states — Washington, Oregon and California — have applied for the most hazard mitigation grants this past decade, with Colorado, Montana and New Mexico not far behind.

California has the most expensive disaster mitigation applications, with an average of over $1 million requested per project.

FEMA covers about 67% of the West’s total project costs on average, though it can be up to 75%. A state or other entity has to apply for other grants or raise the rest themselves, a difference of about $260 million.

“Preparing and mitigating for the impacts of climate change, which is one of the most important threats facing the United States, requires the full collaboration of the Federal government to support state, local, tribal and territorial governments,” the August press release said.

FEMA data show huge swings of hundreds of millions of dollars between years, such as $200 million in 2018 dropping to $8 million in 2020, which reflects more the bureaucratic process involved with applying for and dispersing the money — not necessarily whether a year had more or fewer disasters to address.

The time to complete this process varies depending on the project’s complexity, environmental and historic impacts of the proposed project and other factors, FEMA said in an email to the Deseret News.

While the amount of money given to projects per year appears to ebb and flow over the past decade, overall, communities are asking for more and more money from the government to rebuild and mitigate future disasters.

Here’s how much states in the West have received for hazard mitigation projects since 2011:

FEMA disaster aid

State Number of projects Total project cost FEMA payout
State Number of projects Total project cost FEMA payout
Arizona 26 $2,751,536 $2,075,148
California 475 $549,182,606 $367,562,925
Colorado 106 $91,983,599 $61,128,648
Idaho 39 $8,737,849 $5,452,750
Montana 80 $16,319,935 $11,847,719
Nevada 17 $7,647,905 $5,799,634
New Mexico 71 $27,851,514 $18,558,636
Oregon 110 $24,674,688 $17,781,268
Utah 34 $10,834,067 $7,084,012
Washington 149 $56,709,131 $38,263,373
Wyoming 27 $5,813,835 $4,107,032
Total 1,134 $802,506,665 $539,661,145