By Joel Scata, Natural Resources Defense Council
President Trump killed the federal flood protection standard, a policy put in place to ensure federally funded infrastructure—the hospitals, schools, and roads paid for by you and me through our tax dollars—was constructed with a higher margin of safety against worsening flood risks. Less than two weeks later, Hurricane Harvey inundated Houston with 55 inches of rain. Then Irma came, and Maria, and Florence, and Michael. All were extreme storms that caused extensive flooding. And unfortunately, per the Fourth National Climate Assessment, such events are expected to become more frequent and intense due to climate change, causing substantial losses to infrastructure and property and impeding economic growth. In other words, without significant reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions and adaptation strategies, the United States will spend a hell of a lot of money maintaining, repairing, and replacing public infrastructure. Enacting a new flood protection standard could help ease that financial burden. That task now rests with Congress.
The Federal Flood Protection Standard Was Created to Reduce America’s Exposure to Worsening Floods
The Obama administration established the federal flood protection standard through Executive Order 13690. The standard had required federal agencies to ensure that any construction projects that they may have funded be located outside of high-risk flood areas, and if not practicable, to be built with a higher margin of safety against flood damage.
For example, if the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) planned to fund the construction of public housing, then the federal flood protection standard would have required such homes be located on higher ground, rather than low-lying areas prone to flooding. However, if such a site was not feasible, then the homes would have been required to elevated or flood protected, at minimum, two feet above the height of a 100-year flood. The reason for such a commonsense proposal: reduce the potential for floodwaters to cause damage and leave people stranded.
Prior to Trump revoking the executive order, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and HUD released draft rules outlining their approach for implementing the flood protection standard. For example, FEMA had proposed all critical infrastructure facilities funded by the agency, including facilities rebuilt after a major disaster, account for future flood conditions over the lifetime of the facility, such as the impacts of sea level rise. As the Fourth National Climate Assessment has stated, public infrastructure along the US coastline is greatly threatened by rising sea levels, higher storm surges, and the ongoing increase in tidal flooding. Both proposed rules have since been withdrawn.
Given that the recent climate report found that many parts of the United States will likely see more flooding over the next century due to extreme weather and sea level rise, US taxpayers can expect to pay more than would have been required if the flood protection standard was fully enacted by federal agencies.
Projected Impacts to Infrastructure and Property
Extreme weather and climate-related events are expected to become more frequent and intense in a warming world, creating greater risk of infrastructure disruption and failure. Current building practices entail designing according to past climate conditions as an indication of future climate stresses. Climate change is the wrench thrown into the gears of that approach. As such, the nation’s infrastructure is becoming increasingly vulnerable from future, unplanned weather extremes.
In coastal areas, over $1 trillion in coastal real estate and public infrastructure are vulnerable from flooding due to rising sea levels. Higher sea levels will cause storm surge to travel farther inland than in the past, impacting more infrastructure and properties. The national average increase in coastal 100-year floodplains by 2100 could be as high as 45 percent. Many coastal communities will face negative financial impacts as more frequent flooding leads to higher repair costs and lower property values.
However, the report stresses that adaptive actions can minimize such impacts. While the report acknowledges adaptation will require up-front investment, it underscores that adaptation will have long-term savings, and in many instances can reduce the cost of climate impacts by more than 50 percent. The flood protection standard was designed to be an adaptive action that would provide long-term costs savings due to avoided disaster costs.
A Fool and His Money
The proverb “a fool and his money are soon parted” aptly describes the Trump administration’s rejection of climate action in the name of protecting the American economy. The Fourth National Climate Assessment was clear that climate change is expected to cost the US hundreds of billions of dollarsabsent significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and effective, equitable adaptation efforts. Yet, Trump is hell-bent on ignoring this reality. The killing of the federal flood protection standard is a perfect example of such fiscal irresponsibility when we know floods and extreme storms are getting worse.
Trump, like the fool and his money, is acting as if the United States is not going to have to pay an expensive bill in the end. Unfortunately, for the American taxpayer, it is not Trump’s money, it is ours.
It is now up to our Congressional representatives to act and pass legislation that enacts a flood protection standard applicable to all federal investments. They can look no further than H.R. 7024 – “Federal Flood Management Act of 2018”and S.1798 – “Federal Flood Management Act of 2017.” Both bills would statutorily enact the flood protection standard in its entirety.
At a minimum, they should require that all future money allocated to repair, rebuild, or replace public infrastructure damaged by a Presidentially declared disaster can only be obligated for such projects if those projects are to be rebuilt with a higher margin of safety against flooding. Taxpayers should not be paying to rebuild infrastructure that is no safer to the same type of damage than before. That is just setting us up for failure.