By Franklin Nutter and Robert Moore
Major flooding has become an increasingly critical problem across the United States due to urbanization and rising sea levels. Such flooding is now involved in 90 percent of all natural disasters in the U.S., with average damages nearly doubling over the past two decades to more than $10 billion per year in the 2000s.
President Barack Obama took steps to address this matter head-on by issuing an executive order last year that would require federally owned or funded buildings and infrastructure be built to withstand more severe and sometimes fatal storms. This effort is critical to minimizing the costs, both monetary and human, of future floods.
But while severe floods are increasingly wreaking havoc throughout the country, Congress is inexplicably proposing to weaken Obama’s new rules. At a time when federal disaster policies are in need of serious reform, watering down these measures is unsafe.
The executive branch’s efforts to account for flooding in development decisions date back to a directive issued by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 requiring agencies to avoid development in flood plains whenever possible. Even that move, however, was narrow in scope: Rather than requiring stronger building standards, it simply tried to prevent construction in high-risk areas.
For nearly 40 years, successive administrations declined to update Carter’s measure, until 2015, when Obama issued an executive order proposing the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, which requires federally funded projects in flood plains to be built or renovated in safer ways. The standard gives agencies the flexibility to determine which of three approaches works best for them to meet elevation requirements. Federal agencies can use data based on climate science, build from 2 to 4 feet above the 100-year flood elevation or build to the 500-year flood elevation. The standard also encourages the use of natural ecosystems to minimize flood damage.
Unfortunately, some lawmakers have attempted to undermine the measure by inserting provisions into spending bills that would delay, and in some instances, may even prevent implementation of this important standard. These provisions would block the standard or require all affected agencies to hold a six-month public comment period and conduct a review process before allowing the standard to take effect.
This resistance is shortsighted and risky. The Federal Flood Risk Management Standard strengthens mitigation strategies across the country. Delaying its implementation would leave buildings vulnerable to flood damage and put lives in danger.
The flood standard is intended to protect the federal government’s most important asset: our nation’s citizens. Flooding continues to be the deadliest natural disaster in the United States, taking 155 lives last year. The historic floods last month in West Virginia that killed more than 20 people serve as a somber reminder of the need to prepare for Mother Nature’s wrath.
Establishing a stronger resiliency standard ensures that occupants and employees of federal properties will be safe in the event of a storm.
The standard also ensures that in an era of rising deficits and tight budgets, tax dollars are spent on projects that will not merely be washed away in the next storm. The rules establish consistent guidelines based on up-to-date science on flooding while protecting federal investments in an effort to ensure that limited federal resources are not wasted. While many Americans may think flooding is only a problem for coastal regions prone to hurricanes and tropical storms, it is far more widespread than that and can devastate any state or region across the country. In just the past five years, all 50 states have experienced flood damage.
Since 1998, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has spent nearly $50 billion on Public Assistance Grants to recover from federally declared flood disasters. The majority of that money — nearly $27 billion — has helped rebuild flood-damaged public infrastructure projects like bridges, schools, roads and hospitals.
Those projects have been critical to helping flooded regions recover from major storms, but they also represent wasted resources; smarter development can minimize the costs when such a disaster strikes. Under the updated standard, these are exactly the kinds of projects that would be made less vulnerable — meaning it will cost the government less money in the long run to continuously rebuild this infrastructure following storms.
There is no denying that the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard will require higher upfront construction costs and, in some cases, trade-offs in building designs to protect against future flooding. Federal agencies may have to make certain sacrifices when building in a flood zone, and potentially alter their architecture in order to meet resiliency requirements. It is also likely to be more expensive to follow stricter building codes and add in all of the necessary mitigation features.
But these are critical infrastructure investments that will pay for themselves many times over down the road. In fact, according to FEMA, every dollar spent on mitigation saves $4 in clean-up and rebuilding costs in the aftermath of a disaster. When all eligible federal projects around the country are taken into account, this translates into millions of dollars in savings. Floods cause an average of $8 billion in damage each year, but this standard will reduce that number.
Better storm preparation is urgently needed as severe weather strikes more frequently. Last month, Tropical Storm Colin marked the earliest point in history that the Atlantic region has seen three named storms, soaking parts of Florida with more than 9 inches of rain and causing flooding in numerous communities.
For some counties, flooding is a regular occurrence. For example, two parishes in Louisiana — Jefferson and St. Bernard — have each had 10 federal flood disasters declared since 1998. In Mississippi, Harrison, Hancock, Jackson and Pearl River counties have each had six federal flood disasters declared.
In addition to the flood standard, the federal government needs to do more to help communities around the country adapt to this new reality. A national mitigation strategy along the lines of the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard would go a long way toward saving lives and money when storms strike. This strategy should include even simple measures such as stronger building codes or higher elevation regulations for homeowners and businesses alike.
Updating our nation’s flood maps to ensure they are accurate and reflect the true risks building in certain areas would be another step in the right direction. For far too long, property owners and insurance companies around the country have had to rely on maps that have not been updated in years. The government should utilize the latest technology so that these maps are accurate and widely available, which will provide property owners with a better idea of their flood risks.
Despite the advances in weather tracking technology, it is still impossible to fully predict weather 100 percent of the time. There will always be storms that hit suddenly, with little to no warning, and catch us off guard. Proactive measures need to be taken now to firm up our nation’s storm defenses in anticipation of the inevitable next natural disaster.
The Federal Flood Risk Management Standard is a common-sense step toward a more robust national mitigation strategy that will better prepare the country for the threat of future storms. Congress must take this danger seriously and oppose any efforts to weaken these new rules.
Franklin Nutter is president of Reinsurance Association of America, and Robert Moore is a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Both are members of the SmarterSafer coalition. For more information, visit smartersafer.org.