FEMA designates several Pa., Del., N.J. areas as ‘disaster resilience zones’: Here’s what that means

The new designation prioritizes the areas for federal funding related to climate change resilience.

The water front near the city of Chester

Chester's waterfront looking south of the Commodore Barry Bridge. Parts of Chester are among the areas recently designated by FEMA as community disaster resilience zones. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency is providing a shortcut for hundreds of vulnerable communities to get easier access to funds for climate resiliency projects.

FEMA announced Wednesday the initial designation of 483 census tracts as Community Disaster Resilience Zones. The list includes several areas in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey.

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“The priority is to assist communities that are at the highest risk to climate impacts and have the most need for assistance,” Victoria Salinas, FEMA associate administrator for resilience, said during a call with reporters Wednesday.

In southeastern Pennsylvania, parts of Philadelphia, the city of Chester in Delaware County, and Lower Oxford Township in Chester County made the cut. An area along the riverfront in Wilmington, Delaware and parts of Wildwood and Atlantic City, New Jersey were also included on the list.

The zone designations come from the Community Disaster Resilience Zones Act of 2022, which cleared the way for targeted assistance to places harshly impacted by the effects of climate change.

FEMA chose the initial zones using several factors, including expected annual losses of people, buildings, and agriculture as a result of natural hazards, measures of social vulnerability, and current community resilience. The initial set of designated census tracts reflect the top 50 census tracts with the highest risk for all natural hazards nationwide, as well as the top 1% for each state, FEMA officials said.

“FEMA considered natural hazards risk from a national and a state level, while accounting for factors that reflect disaster impacts felt by a diversity of communities — coastal, inland, urban, suburban, and rural communities,” Salinas said.

Rebecca Yurkovich, sustainability and resilience manager for Delaware County, told WHYY News in a statement that the first step towards building resilience is “defining which communities face the greatest risks.”

“The designation of the City of Chester as a federal Community Disaster Resilience Zone takes that first step by considering both the socioeconomic and geographic conditions which make the City particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change,” Yurkovich said. “While this designation reminds us that there is work to be done, it offers new opportunities for funding and resources, which can put the City of Chester and Delaware County on a path to a more resilient future.”

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No new money is tied to the initial Community Disaster Resilience Zone designation. But federal agencies — including FEMA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Department of Transportation — will use the zones to prioritize grant funding and to increase the federal cost share on projects in or primarily benefiting the zones, FEMA officials said.

“Our goal … is to ensure the most at-risk and most in-need communities have the support and resources they need to improve their resilience,” Salinas said.

Designation as a Community Disaster Resilience Zone will also unlock FEMA’s technical assistance in planning resilience projects and navigating funding opportunities.

FEMA officials emphasize that the zones can also be used by nonprofits, philanthropies, businesses, and others to identify where to focus funding or resilience efforts.

Philadelphia city officials say they’re still learning about FEMA’s methodology for creating the zones and designation’s implications. Within the city, the new zones cover the flood-prone neighborhood of Eastwick, a strip of South Philly along the Delaware River, and a few dozen blocks of North Philly.

“Disasters do not affect everyone the same way and particularly, historically marginalized communities suffer the greatest consequences and have the most difficulty building resilience,” Jeff Kolakowski, a spokesperson for the city’s Office of Emergency Management, wrote in an emailed statement. “Knowing these facts about our communities, the City seeks and will use all opportunities made available to increase hazard mitigation and build resilience to natural, human-caused, and technological disasters. We see this designation as a positive influence for future opportunities.”

The initial designation as a Community Disaster Resilience Zone lasts five years.

FEMA plans on adding more areas to the list in the coming months, and updating it regularly based on shifting risks and needs. Officials say the agency will take into account feedback on the initial designations.

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