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Winter 2024: Environmental Health & Safety

Coastal Resiliency and the Inflation Reduction and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Acts

Eric Laschever


  • Hurricanes and other climate related coastal hazards disproportionately impact overburdened communities.
  • The Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure Improvement and Jobs Act authorizes billions of dollars to help such communities build greater resiliency.
  • The federal government and stakeholder groups are working to equitably implement this legislation in the face of a variety of challenges to do so.
Coastal Resiliency and the Inflation Reduction and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Acts
ArtMarie via Getty Images

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Climate change is roiling communities nationally and globally. These impacts include prolonged drought, flooding, and widespread heat waves. Coastal impacts include sea level rise, storm surge, hurricanes, and flooding. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 18 separate weather and climate disaster events struck the United States in 2022. These events caused an average of $1 billion in damage each and displaced more than three million Americans. In the first six months of 2023, NOAA reports there have already been 12 distinct billion-dollar climate disasters.

This article explores these events’ disproportionate impacts on overburdened communities, the unprecedented funding the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA or Infrastructure Act) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) provide to communities to respond to and prepare for these impacts, and the challenges and initiatives to deliver these resources more equitably to the communities that most need them.

Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, MacArthur genius grant recipient, and one of President Biden’s environmental justice advisers, writing in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, explained that such events demonstrate that social, political, environmental, and climate justice are not separate issues but “overlap and amplify” each other in what she calls “the one-two punch of poverty and climate change.” Catherine Coleman Flowers, Hurricane Ida Shows the Oneo-Tow Punch of Poverty and Climate Change, 597 Nature 449 (2021).

Scholarly work further illuminates this amplification. For example, Aaron Flores and his colleagues examined disparities experienced by Hurricane Harvey survivors on the Texas Gulf Coast based on race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Their study concluded that in each phase of the disaster, overburdened communities fared worse than more affluent ones and that there was a compounding effect as each phase’s harm accumulated. The authors noted these patterns mirrored those observed in Hurricane Katrina and identified features shared by overburdened communities, including “weak planning institutions, exploitative industries, degraded environments, spatial segregation, and other obvious inequalities.” Aaron B. Flores et al., Environmental Injustice in the Disaster Cycle: Hurricane Harvey and the Texas Gulf Coast, 14 Env’t Just. 146 (Apr. 2021).

Bilal G. Morris, senior editor at NewsOne, using Hurricane Ian to provide context, similarly examined recent hurricanes’ disproportionate harm to Black neighborhoods. After surveying sources, including E&E News and Nature, he reported that in hurricanes from Katrina to Harvey African American neighborhoods suffered the most damage. See Bilal G. Morris, Hurricanes “Disproportionately” Harm Black Neighborhoods—It’s Because of Environmental Racism, NewsOne, Sept. 28, 2022.

Morris further noted that based on research published in Nature, people whose homes were damaged by hurricanes from 2005 to 2016 found that Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) inspectors were less likely to visit areas with more Black residents, thus denying them a chance to apply for assistance. FEMA also denied Black families who were able to apply without reason almost three times as often as white homeowners. This article returns to the issue of inequitable relief and assistance implementation following a brief survey of new federal funding for coastal community resilience programs.

Opportunities Created by the IRA and IIJA

The IRA, the United States’ largest climate response investment to date, and the less heralded Infrastructure Act provide a mix of funding for new and existing programs and projects related to coastal issues. An array of federal agencies, including NOAA, FEMA (under the Department of Homeland Security), the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of the Army Corps of Engineers, will administer these funds. This article focuses on NOAA, given its leading role on coastal issues, although similar analyses would be useful for the other agencies.

As detailed further below, the NOAA administrator identified a total of $6.2 billion in the two Acts for programs addressing coastal resilience. Of this amount, over $4 billion between the two Acts are going to various grant programs, with the remainder funding several scientific missions and infrastructure such as hurricane-seeking aircraft and supercomputing.

When President Biden signed the Infrastructure Act on November 15, 2021, NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad identified over $2.9 billion in funds for programs addressing a variety of fire-related and coastal and ocean programs. Approximately $808 million, according to Spinrad, goes to support science, including flood mapping, forecasting, and water modeling; coastal, ocean, and Great Lake observing systems; wildfire prediction, modeling, forecasting and observation system and equipment, and supercomputing infrastructure to support weather and climate models; and data acquisition to improve soil moisture and snowpack measurement. In addition, $20 million is allocated to support Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and Essential Fish Habitat consultation and permitting.

NOAA identifies $1.467 billion for what it calls Climate Ready Coasts, programs helping coastal communities build more resilient futures by investing in high-impact natural infrastructure projects that “build coastal resilience, create jobs, store carbon, and restore habitat.”

The allocation of funds includes the following grants to states or territories: (1) $491 million for funding and technical assistance to restore marine, estuarine, coastal, or Great Lakes ecosystem habitat, or constructing or protecting ecological features that protect coastal communities from flooding or coastal storms; (2) $492 million for coastal resilience and restoration through National Oceans and Coastal Security Fund grants; (3) $207 million for Coastal Zone Management grants to states and territories with approved coastal management programs to better prepare for and build resilience to a variety of coastal hazards; (4) $200 million for marine debris removal or prevention; and (5) $77 million for habitat restoration through the National Estuarine Research Reserves. NOAA administers the first four programs; EPA administers the last. NOAA allocates another $600 million to closely related programs, including $172 million for Pacific coastal salmon recovery, $400 million to enhance fish passage by removing barriers and providing technical assistance under the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act (15% of funding reserved for tribes), and $56 million to enhance Regional Ocean Partnerships—long-standing voluntary, multistate forums—which coordinate interstate and intertribal management of ocean and coastal resources.

In an August 2022 statement on President Biden’s signing of the IRA, Administrator Spinrad identified $3.3 billion for “NOAA’s work to build a Climate-Ready Nation.” Almost 80%, $2.6 billion, is for NOAA to help coastal states, the District of Columbia, tribal governments, local governments, nonprofit organizations, and institutions of higher education to become more prepared and resilient to climate change. According to NOAA, these funds will also support NOAA’s understanding of marine resource trends and their link to climate change, enabling more targeted conservation, restoration, and protection measures for coastal and marine habitats, fisheries, and marine mammals.

The IRA allocates the remaining $700 million in amounts ranging from $50 million to $190 million for an array of purposes that support NOAA’s resilience efforts. These include high-performance computing capacity, research, observation systems, modeling, forecasting, facilities, and aircraft (including a new Hurricane Hunter aircraft). As discussed in this article’s next section, NOAA is looking at ways to provide these services more equitably, including an equity action plan based on information from regional pilots, a listening tour, and a recently issued a request for information/proposal.

In April 2023 NOAA announced that it had recommended approximately $562 million for 149 infrastructure projects to support its Climate-Ready Coasts initiative. According to NOAA, grant applications far exceeded available IIJA funds and so the agency supplemented them with IRA funds. According to NOAA, almost 85% ($477 million) is for projects that strengthen coastal communities’ ability to respond to extreme weather events, pollution, and marine debris; restoring coastal habitats; storing carbon; building underserved communities’ capacity to address climate hazards and supporting community-driven restoration; and creating local jobs in local communities. NOAA is using the remaining funds to provide $46 million and $39.1 million respectively through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation National Coastal Resilience Fund and programs under the Coastal Zone Management Act. NOAA’s website includes links to each of the 149 projects. This information provides a significant database for analyzing the on-the-ground distribution of these funds.

In the summer of 2023, NOAA issued notice of availability of approximately $575 million in IRA funds for coastal resilience projects. NOAA is using some of these funds for its Climate Resilience Regional Challenge, administered by NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management. The focus of this grant program is on collaborative approaches to achieving regional coastal resilience. At the same time, NOAA announced the availability of $20 million for state and territory coastal management programs and $12 million for national estuarine research reserves to support projects that increase climate adaptation and coastal community resilience. NOAA’s announcement states that NOAA technical assistance, including data, tools, training, and access to NOAA expertise, is available for organizations applying for and receiving a grant. This round of grants will provide further data that could be analyzed to determine how and which communities are receiving these funds.

Meeting the Challenge of Equitably Implementing Climate Resilience

Bilal Morris, who reported FEMA’s inequitable application of FEMA relief funds as discussed above, observed that “ameliorating regional disaster injustices requires tackling those root causes, while simultaneously improving organizational capabilities for disaster mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.” Morris, supra. This section examines steps underway by the federal government and stakeholders to more equitably distribute the benefits of the coastal resilience programs described above. States, as recipients of many of these funds, will play a key role in equitably distributing them. Given the complexity and number of those efforts, a review of the state role in equitable delivery is reserved for another time.

Federal equity forcing actions occur within the context of Executive Order 14008, President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative. The executive order, which Biden signed days after his inauguration, sets a goal of distributing 40% of the overall benefits of certain federal investments—including climate-related ones—to marginalized, underserved, and overburdened communities. By July 2021, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, and the National Climate Advisor, in consultation with the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC), issued Interim Guidance for implementing the executive order. The guidance defines key terms and directs agencies to take a series of initial actions.

A Harvard Environment and Energy post notes that the IRA includes environmental justice provisions that, for the first time, reflect President Biden’s executive order in a statute. Hannah Perls, Breaking Down the Environmental Justice Provisions in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, Harv. Energy & Env’t L. Program Blog, Aug. 12, 2022. According to the post, the IRA leaves it to federal agencies to define key terms, processes, and criteria, which will determine how these benefits reach intended communities. The Harvard blog post further reports that the Just Solutions Collective estimates that the IRA includes $40 billion in direct benefits to overburdened communities, compared to $29 billion that Biden previously allocated under the Justice40 initiative as of May 23, 2022.

Looking at NOAA specifically, implementation is using preexisting NOAA efforts as well as creating new ones. Specifically, in 2006 NOAA established the Regional Collaboration Network comprised of eight regional collaboration teams. The teams consist of senior regional staff, a NOAA leadership–appointed team lead, and a full-time coordinator and are tasked with building and maintaining relationships with regional partner organizations and stakeholders. According to NOAA, the effort has created a network of more than 500 professionals that are enhancing NOAA’s capacity to serve local communities.

By November 2021, when President Biden signed the Infrastructure Act, the Regional Collaboration Network had already convened a series of Climate and Equity Roundtables to gather community feedback on how NOAA could improve its climate services, engagement with underserved and vulnerable communities, and internal processes to respond to community needs. One product of the roundtables was the initiation of Climate and Equity Pilot projects. Two examples from the seven projects performed illustrate the area-specific approach.

First, the North Atlantic Regional Collaboration Team’s pilot activities in Bridgeport, New Haven, New London, and Norwich, Connecticut, helped build or strengthen relationships between NOAA, particularly its Sea Grant resilience specialist and community organizations. NOAA provided incentives such as transportation and gift cards to encourage participation. The pilot is identifying ways to improve NOAA programs such as hyper-local flood warnings, digital coast flood and stormwater training, and tools for community use.

As the second example, the NOAA Alaska Regional Collaboration Team is implementing a tribally led and co-developed pilot that created a position of Director of Tribal Climate Change Initiatives at Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The director is responsible for assessing Alaska Tribal climate change adaptation activities, creating a climate change advisory group to ensure that Alaska Native people lead and prioritize Tribal-related climate change efforts, and leading the Tribal review and publication of a report on their efforts.

In addition to the above, in July 2023, NOAA released a request for information (RFI) that seeks feedback on its delivery of climate services, including climate data, information, science, and tools to help ensure that this information is accessible, inclusive, and usable. The RFI also asks how NOAA can increase historically underserved communities’ capacity and access to services for climate preparedness, resilience, and adaptation planning. The RFI also seeks suggestions on how the agency can better use Indigenous and local knowledge in its climate services. In August and September 2023, NOAA hosted 11 listening sessions. NOAA’s notice emphasizes that it is especially seeking feedback from the public health, affordable housing, food security, and economic development sectors; communities with environmental justice concerns; Tribal and Indigenous communities; and other historically underserved communities. See Request for Information, 88 Fed. Reg. 46773 (July 20, 2023). NOAA will use this information to develop an action plan around these concepts that is scheduled for release in 2024.

The above review suggests that NOAA has been working on improving its services to overburdened communities. At the same time, the examples show that there is much work to be done. For example, regional pilots will need to be scaled up to reach more organizations in each region. Significantly, the agencies’ procedures will generate a wealth of information for further analysis. As noted above, analyzing the early rounds of grant recipients to determine the types of organizations receiving and—as importantly—not receiving funds will provide information for subsequent rounds. Similarly, reviewing the list of listening session participants and commenters on the RFI will help determine if these formats are getting more inclusive participation or if they continue to be structured so that organizations with limited capacity don’t have the time or personnel needed to participate. As Devon Parfait, Chief of the Grand Caillou Dulac Tribe and staff to the Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF’s) Coastal Resilience program observed to the author, “the equity language agencies are using in their outreach is catching up with that used by affected communities; what remains to be seen is if these efforts produce on-the-ground results.” Personal communication with the author, July 20, 2023.

The nonprofit sector has responded to the administration’s Justice40 initiative generally and the IRA and IIJA opportunities specifically. A comprehensive survey of such efforts is beyond this article’s scope. The following examples are illustrative and are offered to encourage other organizations to share with the author information about their efforts.

As noted above, the EDF runs a Coastal Resilience Project. In addition to its own projects, EDF has worked with Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law to create an Inflation Reduction Act online tracker, a searchable database of the act’s climate change–related provisions and federal agency actions implementing those provisions. EDF was also involved in launching Writing for Green—an effort to build community capacity to access federal resources.

EDF and the Frontline Institute are partners in Writing for Green, formed to strengthen environmental justice organizations and advocates’ effectiveness. Its staff includes grant writers, trainers, and development consultants from diverse organizations, from emerging community groups to international, long-established entities. Its grant-writing training program consists of approximately 40 hours of live and virtual learning from which participants can choose. Sessions involve individual and small group work, hands-on exercises, and peer-to-peer feedback. In-person group training can also be arranged. An example of this organization’s success is helping the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice secure a $10 million EPA and Department of Energy grant as one of several Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers that will allow the DSCEJ to support southern grassroots environmental justice organizations. Another Deep South Center initiative is discussed further below.

In response to the administration’s Justice40 Initiative, Gloria Walton, president and CEO of The Solutions Project, joined with the nonprofit groups Elevate, Groundswell, the Partnership for Southern Equity, and the Hummingbird Firm to establish the Justice40 Accelerator. According to the Accelerator’s website, it conducts 12-month programs providing seed funding, technical assistance, training, connections, and peer support for community climate justice organizations seeking Justice40 Initiative funding. After the initial yearlong program is finished, cohort participants may join the accelerator’s alumni network for continued support. In August 2021, the Accelerator ran its first cohort of 533 participants. Forty-nine Black, Indigenous, Latino, and Asian and Pacific Islander community organizations comprise the 2022 cohort.

Another partnership responding to the Justice40 Initiative is the Justice40 Community Engagement Project established by the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University. The project’s focus is building community capacity through education and training. This effort is led by the executive directors of the partner organizations, Dr. Beverly Wright and Dr. Robert Bullard, who both serve on the WHEJAC. One of the Engagement Project’s first steps was to organize 21 Regional Hubs in 10 U.S. states. These Hubs are managed by local community-based organizations’ leaders. In explaining these Hubs’ purpose, Dr. Wright notes, “[f]or over 30 years we’ve witnessed projects and funding intended to benefit our communities never reach them.” She continues that with that history in mind, the Hubs are designed to enable community-based organizations to “advocate with authority, equipped with the tools necessary to successfully secure Justice40 mandated funds.” Press Release, Deep South Ctr. for Env’t Just., Justice40 Initiative Gaining Momentum as 21 Environmental Justice Hub Leaders from 10 States Convene for Training Institute (Feb. 16, 2023).

An example of a Regional Hub, which illustrates how they push resources even further into underserved communities, is the Seattle-based Duwamish River Community Coalition—an organization that began 30 years ago with a Superfund cleanup, that has evolved to focus on a broad range of environmental issues affecting the river and its communities. As a Hub, DRCC is working with 10 local organizations to share training and resources on applying for grants, to tell community stories, and to develop community projects. The DRCC site includes a link for information regarding the IRA and Infrastructure Act. This link, in turn, takes the reader to the Justice40 Accelerator discussed above.

These randomly selected nonprofit efforts prompt several observations. First, there is a concerted effort to increase underserved communities’ capacity to secure federal funds. These efforts are occurring nationally, regionally, and locally.

Second, these efforts have overlapping and reenforcing participation. For example, EDF helped form the Justice40 Accelerator, which in turn brought funds to the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, which helped stand up Regional Hubs such as the Duwamish River Community Coalition, which is supporting smaller local community organizations and in turn linking back to the Accelerator.

Third, there are important links between nonprofit and government equity efforts. As noted above, nonprofit leaders such as Catherine Coleman Flowers, Dr. Wright, and Dr. Bullard serve on the WHEJAC.

While these practices are encouraging, the speed at which funds are being distributed and the sheer scale of the demand are likely to result in large pockets of underserved communities remaining left out. Jamie Hearn, of the Duwamish Coalition, captures the excitement tempered with realism caused by the IRA, noting to the author, “We are excited to see this administration recognize the importance of prioritizing environmental justice communities when deciding how to make investments. However, there need to be larger institutional shifts that include policy changes to make sure these opportunities have a lasting impact on the communities that need them the most. Overburdened communities face the consequences of decades of disinvestment, and a few grants will only make a small dent in the large inequities that have yet to be remedied by federal, state, and local governments.” Personal communication with the author, Sept. 25, 2023.

In addition, the 2024 election will determine whether the two Acts’ funds are fully used or fall victim to partisan politics. A more daunting challenge, pointed out by EDF’s Dr. Natalie Snider in a conversation with the author, is that overburdened communities’ needs will continue and likely grow after these funds are spent. She counsels for the need to be developing policy approaches and strategies that secure consistent annual funding for climate resilience to build on those of the Acts examined in this article.

Investing in Coasts and Communities Now

The IIJA and IRA constitute real investments in building more resilient coastal communities as climate-related impacts increase. Government agencies and stakeholders are mobilizing thoughtful and inspiring efforts to empower the most vulnerable communities to share in these opportunities. These activities will provide raw data that, if analyzed, can inform the more concerted and sustained effort for which Chief Parfait, Ms. Hearne, Dr. Snider, and other environmental justice advocates are calling.