IPCC Report Underscores Need for Federal Flood Reform

The Biden administration has two actions it could undertake soon in the face of growing twin threats of sea-level rise and extreme flooding.

Credit: Flooding in southeast Texas from Hurricane Harvey. (Credit: U.S. Department of Defense)

The latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report is an urgent call to adapt to the impacts of climate change. The risks and impacts of the climate crisis can be reduced, it says, “if humans and nature adapt to the changing conditions.” The Biden administration has two actions it could undertake soon in the face of growing twin threats of sea-level rise and extreme flooding: (1) update the National Flood Insurance Program, and (2) fully implement the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard.

The National Flood Insurance Program

The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is our nation’s primary mechanism for addressing and managing flood risk. The program sets the floor for building and land-use decisions in flood-prone areas nationwide.

The 22,000+ communities that participate in the program must adopt the NFIP’s minimum building and land-use standards established by FEMA for residents to purchase flood insurance. NFIP floodplain maps that depict high-risk flood areas are also adopted by the 22,000+ participating communities. These maps are the standard to which everyone turns—developers, engineers, banks, local land use officials, and homeowners and buyers all rely on these maps when siting, designing, or financing any project. 

FEMA—as the sole administrator of the NFIP—has the authority to issue and/or amend the NFIP-implementing regulations to develop minimum building and land-use criteria for flood-prone areas. FEMA is also responsible for the issuance of the program’s floodplain maps.  

Congress mandates that the NFIP’s building and land-use requirements, to the maximum extent feasible, limit development of flood-prone land, and assist in reducing flood damages. Congress also mandates FEMA include future conditions, such as projections of sea level rise, whenever it revises and updates NFIP floodplain maps.  

However, FEMA has not comprehensively amended the standards for building and land-use in flood-prone areas since America’s Bicentennial. As such, not only are the standards ill-equipped to address the floods of today—modern model building codes exceed FEMA’s requirements—the standards are also wholly insufficient to prepare communities for the impacts of climate change. In addition, FEMA has failed to include future conditions on any of the 8,000 maps the agency has updated since Congress imposed its mandate. That means communities are making development decisions based on the climate of the past, not the future.  

FEMA, in October 2021, announced that the agency is considering updating multiple aspects of the NFIP.  In response, NRDC filed extensive comments urging FEMA to make critical climate-smart reforms to the troubled program.  NRDC pushed FEMA to

  • Require all new or substantially improved structures to be elevated higher than the 100-year flood to provide a margin of safety for extreme weather events and short-term effects of sea level rise
  • Ensure all new and revised NFIP floodplain maps depict how the floodplain will change over time, especially concerning sea level rise. Communities and developers rely on these maps to guide siting, design, and construction of all housing, commercial development, and public infrastructure. 
  • Help more homeowners retrofit their homes to the growing threat of climate-related flooding by increasing and making flexible NFIP-related funding.

The IPCC report’s findings are clear. Ongoing and future changes to the climate are increasing the likelihood for floods to cause displacement, injury and illness, loss of life, damage to homes, and the failure of critical infrastructure and the essential community services provided by such infrastructure. When those events interact with existing social inequities, the resulting impacts from flood events are compounded. Communities of color and other frontline communities are more likely to live in flood-exposed areas and have fewer resources to invest in risk-reducing measures. In the United States, a legacy of racially discriminatory housing practices has, on average, channeled low-income and people of color into areas vulnerable to flooding. Maps of historic housing discrimination show how neighborhoods that suffered redlining in the 1930s face a far higher risk of flooding today.

FEMA must act now to reform the NFIP, ideally starting the necessary rulemaking process within the next six months. Communities and their residents cannot afford to wait. However, FEMA must prioritize equitable outcomes, including directing robust resources and technical assistance for flood mitigation to disadvantaged and marginalized homeowners and communities 

The Federal Flood Risk Management Standard

In May 2021, President Biden explicitly reinstated Executive Order 13690 and the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (FFRMS). Former President Trump had revoked the Obama-era flood protection standard just 10 days before Hurricane Harvey struck in August 2017.

Under the FFRMS, all federal agencies must use more protective siting and design requirements for infrastructure projects that receive federal funding, such as affordable housing, emergency response facilities, and water and wastewater systems. Federally funded projects will be required to be located outside of low-lying areas vulnerable to flooding whenever practicable, or, when not practicable, be constructed safer and stronger against predicted flood conditions, including the impacts from sea level rise.  The White House established an interagency working group to coordinate implementation by all agencies and some have already gotten started.

In early September 2021, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced an interim policy partially implementing the standard. FEMA now requires any non-critical infrastructure project funded by one of the agency’s Hazard Mitigation Assistance (HMA) programs to be flood-safe a minimum of two-feet above the height of a 100-year flood. Under existing FEMA regulations, critical infrastructure is required to be protected to the level of a 500-year flood event when using funds from these same HMA programs.

However, FEMA’s HMA programs represent only a small portion of the money the federal government spends on infrastructure development. FEMA’s Public Assistance program has shelled out billions of dollars helping communities recover from major disaster events. The Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General recently faulted FEMA for repeatedly paying to repair infrastructure that was damaged by flooding. Full implementation of the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard would ensure these assets are rebuilt to a higher margin of safety, lessening the chance of the being damaged again.  

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), likewise, spends significant sums of taxpayer dollars annually through its multiple grant programs on public assets, like affordable housing. Given the FFRMS applies to all federal agencies that pay for projects in or near floodplains, these agencies must incorporate the standard into their programs and operating procedures. The IPCC report makes clear we no longer have the luxury of time to adapt.

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