From the Beacon, March 2024

Two weeks ago, the city of Leominster was informed that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had denied their request for a disaster declaration related to the catastrophic flooding that occurred last September. This denial came after months of work by city leadership and representatives of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency to provide FEMA with all of the information and analysis that was required for them to consider the request.

The floods caused an estimated $35 million in damage to municipal infrastructure, not to mention extensive damage to 1,400 homes and businesses. To put this in context, the city’s entire operating budget is $116 million. This means that one day of flooding caused municipal damage that equates to 30% of the city’s annual expenditures. This straightforward context makes it abundantly clear that Leominster cannot be asked to bear this burden alone, nor should any other community in the Commonwealth.

The good news is that the Healey-Driscoll administration, along with members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, have picked up this fight and are standing side by side with Leominster as they appeal FEMA’s decision. The bad news is that this episode is evidence of a federal system that is not accounting for the climate reality that we are all currently living in.

A 2022 study by UMass Boston highlights the likelihood that the intensity of storms and amount of precipitation in Greater Boston and Massachusetts will only increase as the 21st century advances. Without a change in the way the federal government considers these disaster declaration requests, we are at risk of seeing what happened in Leominster replaying with a disturbing level of frequency. Now is the time for all levels of government to begin considering policy changes that acknowledge our new normal and put in place funding mechanisms that can assist local governments as they work to recover from climate-related disasters.

Further good news is that many in Massachusetts are already pursuing this very course. Sen. Jo Comerford and Rep. Natalie Blais have astutely co-authored legislation to create a permanent disaster relief fund to provide reimbursements to municipalities, nonprofits, businesses and individuals. Recently, Gov. Maura Healey included a similar provision as an outside section to her fiscal 2025 state budget proposal. The MMA looks forward to engaging on this important issue through the rest of the legislative session. These proposals, if adopted, won’t eliminate the need for a renewed approach at the federal level, but they would certainly take a step toward protecting cities and towns in Massachusetts from devastating financial impacts related to climate change.

Beyond these efforts, the MMA is excited to be embarking on a series of webinars for the remainder of 2024 focused on climate action. The first in this series is scheduled for March 26 and will feature the Commonwealth’s first-ever climate chief, Melissa Hoffer. We will soon be publishing a schedule of these webinars for 2024, the topics of which will be balanced between climate change adaptation and resilience approaches and climate change mitigation strategies. Be sure to check out these webinars on or via the MMA’s On-Demand Webinar Library.

The MMA will continue to work on Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill to advocate for tools, strategies and resources that will assist local governments as they plan for the myriad challenges presented by climate change. We look forward to standing side by side with you for the work ahead.

Written by Adam Chapdelaine, MMA Executive Director & CEO