By Joel Scata, Natural Resources Defense Council
Less than two weeks before Hurricane Harvey struck Texas, President Trump killed a flood protection standard that would have made federally-funded infrastructure, including public hospitals, schools, and utilities, safer from future storms. In the aftermath, the Trump administration stated it was planning to replace the standard to ensure it was “building back better, faster, and stronger.” However, one year later no such standard has materialized. As sea levels rise and extreme rain storms become more common, Trump’s promise to issue a new flood protection standard will ring even more hollow in the face of increasing disaster costs.
The Federal Flood Protection Standard Would Have Ensured A Strong and Safer Recovery
The federal flood protection standard was put in place by the Obama administration via Executive Order 13690. The standard had required federal agencies to ensure that any construction projects that they may have funded to be built with a higher margin of safety if located in flood-prone areas.
Prior to Trump revoking the executive order, FEMA, HUD, and EPA all had 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.
In the context of Harvey, the standard would have required FEMA to rebuild damaged public infrastructure, like police stations, schools, and hospitals, safer and stronger than their pre-flood damaged conditions. Such action could have reduced the likelihood taxpayers would pay to rebuild the same infrastructure after future floods.
According to FEMA, the agency has released over $800 million in Public Assistance Grants for post-Harvey recovery in Texas. An amount that likely will continue to grow as money from three Congressional special appropriations continues to be released. Public Assistance grants are provided to states and local governments after a Presidentially-declared disaster to help “repair, replace, and restore” publicly-owned facilities. If FEMA had implemented its proposed rule, all funding that went to such publicly-owned facilities would have, depending on their level of damage, required them to be built back with a higher level of resilience to flooding.
However, FEMA withdrew its proposed rule last March stating it was no longer moving forward given President Trump’s actions the previous Fall. FEMA has not made any announcements about whether it will require higher standards for post-hurricane rebuilding.
While HUD has also withdrawn its proposed rule, it managed to put into place a similar requirement for the $7.4 billion in disaster-recovery money Congress approved after Hurricane Harvey. However, such a provision is solely limited to post-Harvey recovery, it does not apply to all HUD funded projects that support development of housing, economic development, and the other disaster related costs the agency is called upon to administer..
Future of Extreme Weather
Climate change is exacerbating our nation’s susceptibility to disastrous flood events. As climate change raises sea levels and alters precipitation patterns, coastal areas and riverine communities will become increasingly susceptible to flooding. According to the National Climate Assessment, the heaviest rainfalls are becoming heavier and more frequent, paralleled by an increase in floods where the largest increases in heavy rain amounts have occurred.
Sea level rise and an increase in heavy rain events are projected to continue for the foreseeable future. These climatic changes will have significant impacts on the reliability and operability of the nation’s infrastructure, with exorbitant recovery costs for the federal government as it assists communities to recover after major natural disaster events.
For example, major flooding disasters have cost the federal government, and thus taxpayers, billions of dollars. Between 1998 and 2014, the FEMA spent $48.6 billion through its Public Assistance program in the wake of floods and coastal storms 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. Harris County alone has received close to $1 billion in such grants.
However, these high costs can be reduced through smart planning and adaptive actions. The flood protection standard was the type of climate smart policy that would have helped minimize the cost of these future impacts.