Extreme heat is not yet treated the same as other types of disasters by the federal government.

Extreme heat is not yet treated the same as other types of disasters by the federal government. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Biden grapples with the federal government’s role in a future fraught with extreme heat

Heat is a leading killer, but FEMA has not deployed for it as it has for floods and fires.

With the nation experiencing record heat waves that are only expected to worsen over time, the federal government is facing a fundamental question over its role in addressing the ongoing, and forthcoming, crises. 

The Biden administration has announced no shortage of federal initiatives aimed at addressing the long-term threat of climate change, but fewer to address immediate concerns. Changing that dynamic will require a rethinking of the definition of emergency response and may need congressional intervention. Extreme heat kills 600 people annually, more than die from hurricanes, floods and tornadoes combined. 

President Biden on Thursday announced some new federal actions to address the growing threat of heat, such as worker protections through the Labor Department and new funding streams to support state and local efforts. For many, however, the federal government should be taking more direct action to help localities confronting emergency situations.  

The federal government could provide funds for cooling centers through its Public Assistance program, as well as emergency food, water, generators, medical care and other supplies and activities, though that would require an emergency declaration. A recent review by the Congressional Research Service found the federal government has never issued an emergency declaration due to heat and heat is not named in the allowable conditions for such an action. Generally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s regulatory structure restricts actions to those related to physical damage. 

CRS said Congress could consider changing the definition of what constitutes an emergency under the Stafford Act. 

“If Congress determines that the Stafford Act should be more clearly available for extreme heat response, Congress may consider directing FEMA to give greater consideration to casualties and other nonstructural losses when evaluating the need for Stafford Act declarations and associated financial assistance for emergency response for hazards like extreme heat,” the researchers said. 

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., has been pushing for such a change. The Empowering Resilient Communities Act (H.R. 4774) would direct FEMA to issue first-ever guidance for "extreme temperature events" that would help states and localities secure federal assistance after an emergency declaration. That followed his introduction of the Climate Risk and Emergency Support in Livable Inclusive and Equitable Neighborhoods and Communities Everywhere (RESILIENCE) Act (H.R. 6396) last year, which would update FEMA's disaster definition to explicitly include incidents of heat waves and freezes. 

Carlos Castillo, FEMA's former acting deputy administrator for resilience and previously its assistant administrator for recovery, said the president already has the latitude to declare a disaster due to heat, but he does not anticipate one will ever do so. The agency—already stretched beyond its capacity—does not have the personnel or resources to directly address extreme heat in every community experiencing it, Castillo said. Instead, he predicted, FEMA will continue to provide guidance to states and local jurisdictions on how to prevent heat exhaustion and heat stroke, offer technical advisories and offer funding through Emergency Management Performance Grants. 

“FEMA's role in this, unless there’s a different direction, is supporting local governments,” said Castillo, now the chief development officer at Tidal Basin Group, an emergency and disaster management consultancy. 

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said recently FEMA has set up cooling stations around the country, but the agency declined to confirm that. Instead, it noted it has provided funds to state and local governments through its Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities. That is a mitigation program, however, focused on reducing threats of future disasters rather than addressing immediate, acute issues. 

The White House did not respond to a request to clarify Jean-Pierre’s comments, though Biden on Thursday also said FEMA has been directly involved in response efforts. 

“FEMA has been on the ground responding to those unprecedented weather emergencies in real time,” the president said, referring to all events exacerbated by climate change. 

FEMA maintains another program, the Emergency Management Performance Grant, which can help state and local governments prepare for hazards and does not require a disaster declaration. FEMA has said it plans to use the funds for risks associated with climate change, including drought and extreme heat. Castillo suggested Congress could increase the funding for that program to address the increasing crises heat has wrought. 

The Health and Human Services Department's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) provides block grants to states that offer some degree of flexibility. HHS has said the money can go toward cooling centers or to provide air conditioning for eligible households. The Agriculture Department, through its Rural Development component, can similarly provide funds that could be used for community emergency shelters and cooling centers. 

The Labor Department is currently developing a “heat standard” through which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will attempt to create federal protocols to protect workers from heat hazards. Biden said Labor will ramp up enforcement by boosting inspections in high-risk industries like agriculture and construction.   

“We should be protecting workers from hazardous conditions, and we will,” Biden said at the White House on Thursday. “And those states where they do not, I’m going to be calling them out, where they refuse to protect these workers in this awful heat.”

Biden noted agencies across government are taking actions to confront rising heat. The Forest Service is awarding $1 billion in grants to help cities plant trees, the Housing and Urban Development Department is helping fund more heat-resistant buildings and the opening cooling centers, the Interior Department is expanding water storage in western states and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is creating a partnership with universities to improve weather forecasting. 

The president did not lay out any new actions for FEMA. Kate Gallego, the Democratic mayor of Phoenix, joined Biden virtually on Thursday to speak about the hazardous, record-setting conditions her city is facing, as well as to request more direct federal assistance. 

“You mentioned how many lives are lost to heat, and that’s a real focus for us,” Gallego said. “We would love it if Congress would give you the ability to declare heat a disaster.”