Katrina 10 Years On: The Federal Flood Risk Management Standard Provides a Way Forward

Flooding as a result of the breeched levees on August 29, 2005.
Credit: Photo by Marty Bahamonde/FEMA

This month marks the 10th commemoration of Hurricane Katrina. It was the costliest, as well as, one of the deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States.

When the levee system safeguarding New Orleans catastrophically failed, our nation watched in horror as the flood waters spread throughout this unique city, inundating hospitals, schools, and hundreds of homes. The aftermath during recovery was even harder to watch, and left many of us asking "how can we do better?"

The climate is changing -- rising sea levels, severe storms, devastating floods - we have a duty to improve the resiliency of our local communities to future flood disasters. According to the United States Global Change Research Program, the impacts and costliness of weather disasters, like flooding, are increasing; events considered "rare" today will become more common in the future due to climate change. Major storm events, like Hurricane Katrina, which resulted in the loss of life and billions of dollars in damage to transportation systems, utilities, and other critical infrastructure, will be more frequent and intense in a warming climate.

We can do better by taking steps today that will mitigate the impact of tomorrow's storms.

Adaptation needs to be the focus. We need to build the adaptive capacity of our local communities by safeguarding the public infrastructure - such as the bridges, roads, and wastewater treatment plants - on which they depend. Impacted communities must have a voice in developing these solutions to ensure their local knowledge is integrated into adaptation strategies.

The Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, which was issued via Executive Order 13690, is one of the most far-reaching federal policies on climate change adaptation. The FFRMS was developed by the President's State, Local, and Tribal Task Force on Climate Change Preparedness and Resilience and underwent an extensive public comment process with listening sessions held throughout the country.

The Standard provides a pivotal framework for reducing our nation's exposure to flood risk. Further, it better attains the original intention of Executive Order 11988 - the predecessor to Executive Order 13690 - to restore and preserve the natural and beneficial values served by floodplains.

Under the Standard, federal agencies must use more protective design standards when making decisions about what and where to build, or in deciding which projects can receive federal funding. The Standard establishes a new level of protection in which agencies can select one of the following three options:

  • Climate - Informed Science Approach: Use the best available climate science data to determine future flood conditions, and elevate new or substantially damaged structures above that future flood level (the preferred method for agencies to apply if the information is available);
  • Freeboard Value Approach: Elevate new or substantially damaged structures and facilities two feet for standard projects and three feet for critical projects above the 100-year flood level;
  • 500-Year Elevation: Elevate new or substantially damaged structures to the 500-year flood level (a flood with a 0.2 percent chance of occurring in any given year).

Each option ensures that the more frequent uncertainties associated with climate change are adequately accounted for by federal agencies that are funding construction in a floodplain. Ensuring the implementation of this smart standard will result in stronger, more resilient communities and a more conservative investment of taxpayer dollar.

That's because pre-disaster mitigation efforts, which include building to a higher standard, are proven to reduce the associated costs of post-disaster recovery. The benefit-cost ratio of FEMA Hazard Mitigation grants is illustrative of this assertion: every dollar spent on a FEMA hazard mitigation grant produced, on average, four dollars of benefits--a significant return on public dollar expenditures. For floods, the average benefit increases to five dollars for every dollar invested.

The benefits of hazard mitigation are the avoided losses, ones that would have occurred if mitigation had never been implemented. In addition, the new standards should encourage project managers to consider moving the project to higher ground, where the flooding risk is significantly reduced and where less flood protection would be required, offering a potential decrease in capital costs.

Additionally, the standard is a significant step forward for protecting our floodplains and preserving habitat. Per the Standard, agencies are required, where possible, to use natural systems and green infrastructure when developing alternatives to constructing in a floodplain. It is a wise use of the floodplain to achieve both flood loss reduction, and the conservation and protection of the natural and beneficial functions of our water resources. Sustainable development within a floodplain increases the room available for floodwaters, thereby lowering floodwater elevations upstream and downstream, and preserves natural processes of infiltration, which improves water quality and wildlife habitat.

As we reflect on and remember Hurricane Katrina, we should still be asking the question of "how can we do better." Adapting our infrastructure to weather the floods of the future is part of the solution. The Federal Flood Risk Management Standard is the means to attain it.

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