By Joel Scata, Natural Resources Defense Council
On Friday, NRDC submitted comments on proposed rule to update FEMA’s floodplain management regulations. The proposed update, which seek to implement President Obama’s flood protection standard, are a significant step forward for strengthening the resilience of the nation to the increasing risk of flooding due to the effects of climate change. The proposed rule will strengthen our nation’s resilience to flooding by requiring FEMA-funded construction projects located in floodplains to be elevated or floodproofed to a higher level of safety. When federal funds are used to build or rebuild infrastructure, the federal government has a responsibility to the taxpayer that investments are made in safe, sustainable, and resilient ways. The proposed rule will ensure FEMA is fulfilling that duty.
Flooding already is the most common and costly natural disaster in the United States. Between 1998 and 2014, $48.6 billion in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Public Assistance Grants were spent in the wake of floods to repair or replace public buildings ($12.6 billion), public utilities ($7.4 billion), roads and bridges ($5.5 billion), and water-control facilities like levees, dams, and pumps ($1 billion), with the remainder spent on clean-up and emergency actions. Costs that will only continue to grow as the effects of climate change exacerbate both inland and coastal flooding nationwide.
Already flooding events have occurred with greater frequency in both the Midwest and Northeast, a trend that is expected to continue as the rate and severity of heavy downpours increases. Additionally, Coastal communities have the added complication of sea level rise. By 2100, global mean sea level may rise between two and six feet. Six feet of sea level rise has the potential to inundate the homes of 5 million to 14 million people in the US by the end of the century.
Hence, FEMA’s proposed rule to implement the flood protection standard is an essential component of a national strategy for protecting our infrastructure and communities from the effects of flooding and preparing the nation for the unavoidable consequences of climate change. FEMA’s proposed rule accomplishes this assertion by requiring the following:
- Require construction projects funded through FEMA disaster and non-disaster assistance programs (i.e. Public Assistance, Hazard Mitigation Assistance, and Flood Mitigation Assistance Programs) be protected to higher level of resilience if located in a floodplain.
- For traditional construction projects, like government office buildings, FEMA is proposing to require two feet of elevation or floodproofing, above the 1% chance flood elevation (100-year flood); and
- For critical construction projects, like hospitals and nursing homes, FEMA is proposing to require three feet above the 1% chance flood elevation. Also for critical projects, FEMA may use the best available climate science data available to determine future flood conditions over the lifetime of the proposed structure, and elevate or flood-proof it above that future flood level.
These requirements will allow for the impacts of climate change to be accounted for in the design and building of FEMA funded (i.e. taxpayer funded) infrastructure. Elevating or floodproofing a structure to a higher level above the floodplain is not novel. Hundreds of communities across the nation already require similar measures. FEMA just expands upon this concept by how it determines the floodplain and corresponding level of resilience to which a structure must be built to account for the impacts of climate change.
At present, other Federal agencies, like the Department of Housing and Urban Development, are moving to incorporate the federal flood protection standard into their regulations and operating procedures. Not only will this process provide more opportunity for public input, but it will ensure that our Federal agencies are taking future flood risk and climate change in general, more seriously.
Climate change is making flooding in the United States more likely. Accounting for the impacts of climate change in the design and construction of federally-funded infrastructure will help improve the nation’s resilience to flooding, saving tax-payer dollars and reducing harm to people and property. FEMA’s proposed rule is an important step in the right direction.