By Joel Scata, Natural Resources Defense Council
From Ellicott City, Maryland to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, recent floods have devastated our local communities, destroying businesses, washing away homes, and most tragically, claiming lives. And these types of floods are becoming all too common in the United States. The flood in Baton Rouge was the eighth 500-year level flood event to have impacted the nation in the past 12 months. In the past year, we have also witnessed major floods in West Virginia, South Carolina, and Texas. Worse yet, the intensity and frequency of major flood events are projected to increase as sea levels rise and the climate changes. The heaviest rain events are becoming heavier and are occurring more often and sea levels are projected to rise six feet by the end of the century. Our nation will continue to remain vulnerable to the increasing risk of flooding, unless we take measures to mitigate and adapt to these impacts.
That’s why a diverse coalition representing professional floodplain managers, insurance companies, fiscal conservatives, and environmental groups voiced their support for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) proposed rule today, which, once finalized, will improve our nation’s resilience to flooding. The proposed rule provides a desperately needed update to FEMA’s flood policy by requiring FEMA-funded projects located in floodplains to account for future flood risk by building safer and smarter, thereby protecting people and property, and saving tax payer dollars.
For example, if public infrastructure, such as our police stations, roads, and schools, are rebuilt post-disaster with FEMA grant money, the proposed rule would require them to incorporate a higher level of resilience if they were damaged by more than 50 percent of their value and located in a floodplain. For traditional projects, this would require the project to be built 2 feet above the 1 percent chance annual flood level. For critical projects, like hospitals and nursing homes, 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 or elevate the structure 3 feet above the 1 percent chance annual flood level. Given our history with flooding, these are much needed reforms.
Flooding already is the most common and costly natural disaster in the United States, causing billions of dollars in economic losses every year. A few startling facts:
- Between 1980 and 2013, flood-related damages cost the U.S. more than $260 billion.
- Flooding accounts for nearly 85 percent of all disaster declarations.
- Between 1998 to 2014,$48.6 billion in 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. (FEMA’s Public Assistance Program represents only a small portion of the total amount the federal government spent on rebuilding after flood-related natural disasters.)
Flood losses in the United States are projected to worsen in the coming decades, putting more people and property at risk. Unfortunately, while federal spending post-disaster has dramatically increased over the last few decades, spending on proven, pre-disaster planning and mitigation still falls woefully short of what is needed to better protect people, property, and taxpayer dollars (for every one dollar spent on disaster mitigation, four dollars are saved on post-disaster recovery and rebuilding).
When federal funds are used to build, rebuild, or subsidize structures, the government has a responsibility to the taxpayer that investments are made in safe, sustainable, and resilient ways. FEMA’s proposed rule and the broader updated federal flood policy will ensure the Federal government is fulfilling that duty.