FEMA also began folding climate adaptation into a program that allows cities to receive discounts on their flood-insurance premiums if they take additional steps to reduce their flood risk. Under the Community Rating System, cities can now get credit for planning for the effects of rising sea levels. Officials in the Florida Keys are planning to take advantage of these credits as they map their vulnerable roadways.
A week before Mr. Trump entered the White House, FEMA also unveiled a proposal for a “public assistance deductible,” in which states would be responsible for a greater portion of the cost of disaster recovery unless they took steps like enacting stricter building codes to limit exposure to disasters. While this proposal, which is not yet implemented, may face pushback from states and homebuilders, environmentalists and fiscal conservatives say it could lessen the moral hazard around flood policy.
Experts caution that FEMA can only do so much on its own. “They can’t force the hands of communities,” said Laura Lightbody, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Flood-Prepared Communities initiative. “Ultimately it’s up to local leaders to take responsibility.”
“But,” she added, “I do think the federal government has woken up to the fact that we need to start thinking more seriously about future risk.”
Climate Change, a Political Flash Point
Since coming to office, Mr. Trump has moved quickly to repeal Obama-era policies focused on curbing the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change and has vowed to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord.
But, apart from the rollback of Mr. Obama’s flood order, the Trump administration has been more restrained in directly targeting measures aimed at adapting to future disasters. While the Environmental Protection Agency has scrubbed mentions of global warming from its website, FEMA’s climate adaptation page remains.
Mr. Wright, who has held his FEMA position since 2013, said the agency was still pursuing many of the mitigation efforts begun under the previous administration, while working to quadruple investments in pre-disaster mitigation by 2023. And administration officials are now contemplating a new federal flood standard that could guide post-disaster rebuilding efforts.
Asked whether skepticism about climate change might impede these efforts, Mr. Wright said, “I have never experienced that as an obstacle. And I say that full stop.”
Mr. Fugate, the former FEMA administrator, was warier: “The direction of this administration has been so uncertain, and you hope that they’re not just focused on getting rid of anything that might suggest that climate change is a problem.”
Alice C. Hill, who helped develop the Obama administration’s climate resilience strategy, had a different concern: Unless the administration was actively engaged on adaptation efforts, it was less likely that such programs would expand in the future.
“Within any administration, it’s easy for the urgent to overcome the important,” she said. “At some point, climate change will become urgent, but for now it’s still in the important category — it doesn’t need to get done today. So unless somebody’s actively pushing on agencies to act, it won’t get done.”
For example, in 2012, Congress created an advisory council to help FEMA improve its flood insurance program maps. The council has made dozens of recommendations, including ways that FEMA could produce maps that accounted for climate risks to help communities plan for the future.
But the task is costly, requiring airborne mapping of much of the country, and Congress hasn’t provided sufficient funds for FEMA to implement it. And in his first budget, Mr. Trump proposed further cuts to mapping programs.
Ms. Hill said adaptation programs may have the best chance of survival if they’re not explicitly framed as climate measures. “This whole issue has become highly politicized,” she said. “But the longer I’ve worked on this issue, the less I care what we call it. You can just talk about fiscal risk. This is a fiscally conservative approach.”