NRDC Comments on HUD’s Proposed Flood Protection Rule

Credit: Photo by DAVE GATLEY/FEMA

NRDC submitted comments yesterday on a proposed rule by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which, when finalized, will increase the nation’s resilience to flood disasters. The proposed rule achieves greater protection for the nation by requiring future HUD-funded projects, like affordable housing, hospitals, and other kinds of community infrastructure, to be built with an additional margin of safety against potential flooding.

Floods are already the most common and costly type of natural disaster in the United States, and they are only projected to increase in frequency and severity as sea levels rise and precipitation patterns shift in response to climate change. With the new standards in place, HUD will ensure that its projects are less likely to be damaged in a flood, which will reduce the Federal cost of future flood events and save taxpayer dollars.

Implementation of HUD’s proposed rule will provide long-term benefits for the nation in avoided disaster costs, as well as safer, more prepared communities. As HUD is a significant funder of affordable housing and economic development, implementation of higher flood protection standards will reduce the risk of losing housing and essential community services in the event of a flood.

The proposed rule, which improves upon existing HUD regulations, requires that new or substantially improved HUD-financed projects be built to an elevation of two feet above the level of the 1 percent annual chance flood ("100-year flood").

After the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy flooded their house with 5 feet of water, the homeowners made the decision to elevate their house above the new 100-year flood level
Credit: Photo by Kenneth Wilsey/FEMA

Elevating two feet above the 100-year flood level is a widely practiced and cost-effective method to reduce flood risk. Multiple states and local communities have already implemented elevation requirements that either meet or exceed the elevation requirements required under the proposed rule. Indiana, Montana, New York, and Wisconsin have a two-foot freeboard requirement for all development, both private and public, occurring in the 100-year floodplain. Additionally, 232 communities across the nation have minimum elevation requirements of two feet for any new home located in the 100-year floodplain. The proposed rule’s requirement that non-critical HUD-funded infrastructure be protected two-feet above the 100-year floodplain is a common practice across the United States for mitigating flood risk.

More importantly, the proposed rule goes a step further by applying the updated flood protection standards to areas vulnerable to flooding outside the mapped 100-year floodplain—the traditional metric for acceptable flood risk in the nation. As climate change raises sea levels and causes more frequent heavy downpours, this boundary becomes increasingly arbitrary, and is no longer an accurate depiction of flood risk that new construction will face over its lifespan. A recent FEMA–funded study projects that areas at risk of flooding in the United States will expand, on average, by 45 percent by 2100. Until floodplain maps account for future conditions, as recommended by the Technical Mapping Advisory Council, infrastructure located outside the mapped 100-year floodplain will increasingly be vulnerable to flood-caused damage. Already,it is estimated that people living outside of the 100-year floodplain file 20 percent of National Flood Insurance Program claims and receive one-third of disaster assistance for flooding. The proposed rule attempts to address this dilemma by increasing the floodplain footprint beyond the currently mapped 100-year floodplain in which the two foot elevation requirement would apply. Expanding the floodplain footprint horizontally, in addition to vertically, ensures that future conditions are accounted for when HUD carries out actions that will affect a floodplain.

HUD's proposed rule would protect areas outside the 100-year floodplain that are vulnerable to flooding
Credit: Image by FEMA

The risk of flooding is increasing throughout the country. HUD’s proposed rule will ensure that future HUD-funded projects account for these increased risks, providing greater protection for our communities. As required by an executive order signed by President Obama in 2015 establishing that similar standards apply to all Federal agencies’ infrastructure projects located in a floodplain, we can expect other Federal agencies to follow HUD’s lead. HUD’s proposed rules—and the executive order that applies to all agencies’ projects—will make the nation more resilient to flooding and the effects of climate change. As such, NRDC is very supportive of HUD as it moves forward with implementation