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New federal laws have money for climate projects — if communities can actually get it

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Communities nationwide are trying to protect themselves from the effects of climate change. They're shoring up coastlines, they're making roads higher. And all of that is expensive. Now two new laws aim to help with tens of billions of federal dollars. But as WABE's Emily Jones reports, that money can be very hard to get.

EMILY JONES, BYLINE: Tybee Island sits off Georgia's coast near Savannah. It's home to about 3,000 people and popular as a beach destination. And it has a problem every time it rains.

ALAN ROBERTSON: So all the stormwater drains into here. Let me show you this.

JONES: Tybee resident Alan Robertson points to the pipe where the island's stormwater is supposed to drain out when it rains. It's buried by sand.

ROBERTSON: The pipe's under there - (laughter) you can't see it, but there - so what happens is, when it gets covered with sand and the tide rises, there's nowhere for the stormwater to go.

JONES: The water backs up in the system and ends up flooding the roads.

ROBERTSON: So the city has to clear this every day.

JONES: Climate change is making the problem worse. Between rising sea levels and worsening rainfall, the island's entire stormwater system will need to be reengineered. Tybee is not alone. Communities across the country have problems like this. Flooding, wildfires, heat waves and droughts are getting more intense as fossil fuel emissions warm the planet. People need to be protected. Infrastructure like roads and stormwater systems need to be fortified. Doing all of that takes a lot of money. The good news? The federal government is making a ton of money available thanks to a pair of landmark new climate and infrastructure laws. The bad news? That money can be really hard to get.

MICHAEL DEXTER: There are so many new opportunities coming down the line that it's hard to keep track.

JONES: Michael Dexter is with the Southeast Sustainability Directors Network. His whole job is helping cities with federal grants. And yet...

DEXTER: It's still hard to look across multiple federal agencies, dozens if not hundreds of different grant programs...

JONES: And figure out which one works for your city. Last year's Inflation Reduction Act and the 2021 infrastructure law together contain more than $50 billion over the next decade to address climate impacts. But to get the money, communities have to apply. You need data and plans. Sometimes cash-strapped cities need to come up with some funding on their own. Last fall, at a meeting of government staff in coastal Georgia, participants listed the hurdles they have to clear to apply for funding.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Knowledge of the available grant opportunities. Of course, staff time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Legal review.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Getting all the pieces together from the different stakeholders.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Approval to submit the grant.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And then, the last thing, what happens if we actually get the grant? Oh, my God. We have to...

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We have to do it.

JONES: It's all a lot to handle for understaffed local governments. That means accessing money can be hardest for the places that need it most. Nathaniel Smith of the nonprofit Partnership for Southern Equity says the whole process disadvantages many of the places most at risk from climate change, often poor communities and communities of color.

NATHANIEL SMITH: All of these things have helped to facilitate a competitive advantage of, in particular, white communities and well-resourced communities.

JONES: Lots of organizations are trying to help navigate the funding maze. And the federal government says it's learned from the past and is designing these programs with vulnerable places in mind. Daniel Blackman was, until recently, the Environmental Protection Agency's regional administrator for the Southeast.

DANIEL BLACKMAN: All these great numbers and these great programs means absolutely nothing if communities that need it most can't have access to it.

JONES: So federal agencies like the EPA and Department of Transportation are offering help with the application process. And some of the new funding is specifically earmarked for disadvantaged communities. Michael Dexter of the Southeast Sustainability Directors Network says no one knows yet if those efforts will be enough.

DEXTER: I was going to say, that's the $100 million question. No, that's the $1 trillion, multiple-trillion-dollar question.

JONES: And the answer is essential, because these landmark climate and infrastructure laws can only protect people from climate impacts if the money actually unclogs storm drains, like Tybee Islands', and keeps floodwater off the streets. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Jones