The Nation’s Approach to Managing Flood Risks Must Change

Kentucky Air National Guardsmen conduct water rescue missions in Port Arthur, Texas in wake of Hurricane Harvey. Photo Credit: U.S. Air National Guard

In the era of climate change, the “business-as-usual” approach for addressing flooding is no longer an option. Current federal policies create an unsustainable “flood, rebuild, repeat” situation for managing the nation’s flood risks. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, while extreme events, laid bare the holes in our nation’s ability to prepare for and adapt to a growing number of large-scale natural disasters. We are now seeing more severe storm events, rising sea levels, and more people moving to vulnerable coastal areas. The impacts and associated damage costs from floods will only continue to increase without reform. The Trump administration and Congress must pursue policies that make America safer and more resilient to flooding.

Three major flood policy areas demand immediate attention:

  • reinstating the recently revoked federal flood protection standards;
  • implementing climate-smart reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program, and
  • accounting for future flood risks in disaster planning.

As we tally up the devastation from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the need for these reforms will only increase.

The High Costs of Flooding

Hurricane Harvey, one of the most destructive storms to hit the United States, caused widespread flooding along Texas’ Gulf Coast and in parts of Louisiana. The storm damaged tens of thousands of homes, impacted critical facilities, like hospitals, nursing homes, and water treatment plants, and most tragically, resulted in over 70 deaths. The costs to rebuild Houston and other affected areas will be high, possibly reaching $190 billion.

Less than three weeks later, Hurricane Irma, one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic, struck Florida, after causing catastrophic damage in the northeastern Caribbean. Irma produced significant storm surge and dumped heavy rain, flooding roads, homes, and businesses. While Florida was sparred the worst of the predicted damage, places like the US Virgin Islands, were not as fortunate. These communities, like those impacted by Harvey, deserve fair and equitable recovery, including rebuilding stronger to future storms.

Unfortunately, Harvey and Irma are part of a growing trend of large-scale storms and floods impact the United States in recent decades.  

Source: NOAA Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters

The federal government spends a significant amount of money responding to such disasters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency distributed approximately $51 billion in public assistance grants between 2005 and May 2017 for flood-related disasters. And this number represents only a fraction of the money the federal government spends to help the nation recovery after major natural disaster events. For instance, between 2005 and 2014, the federal government obligated at least $236.7 billion on disaster assistance through various programs.      

The human and economic consequences of such disasters become even more alarming when one realizes that the frequency and severity of major flood events are projected to increase. As sea levels rise and heavy rains storms become more common, coastal areas and river communities can expect increasing vulnerability to flooding.

The nation’s ability to prepare for and adapt to such flood disasters must change. NRDC urges the Trump administration and Congress to take the following actions:

Reinstate Federal Flood Protection Standards

In August, President Trump rolled back federal flood protection standards put in place to ensure taxpayer-funded infrastructure, like bridges, roads, and water treatments plants, was more resilient to flooding. This short-sighted decision must be reversed if the administration is serious about building back flood-ravaged communities stronger and responsibly managing American tax dollars.

The flood protection standards would have made people and property safer, and reduced the national burden of paying to rebuild public infrastructure after a major flood event. They required federal agencies funding potential construction projects in high-risk flood zones, to first assess whether a practical alternative location existed, and if not, to construct the project with a higher margin of safety against future floods, including sea level rise. Nevertheless, President Trump signed an executive order throwing out these commonsense measures in response to pressure from developers.

The President’s order met with heavy criticism, especially after the recent hurricanes. Reportedly, the administration may reconsider that decision. It must do so. If the Administration sincerely wants to ensure federal investments are built with a higher level of safety to flooding, then the administration must acknowledge that a future of more extreme floods is a reality.   

The administration must fix its mistake for near-term rebuilding efforts, but Congress must take up the mantle to make federal flood protection standards permanent. Last Friday, Senators Van Hollen, Schatz, and Booker introduced legislation to ensure that federally-funded infrastructure projects—like roads, bridges, and emergency facilities—are built to withstand more extreme flooding. If enacted, the legislation would codify the federal flood protection standards President Trump revoked, and demonstrate Congress’s commitment to protecting people and property from major flood events and responsibly investing American tax dollars.

Implement Climate-Smart Reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program

Texas Army National Guardsmen assist residents affected by flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. Photo Credit: Army National Guard photo by Lt. Zachary West

The federal flood insurance program cannot handle the floods of today, let alone the floods of tomorrow. The program was already more than $24 billion in debt before Hurricanes Harvey and Irma struck.  Federal flood insurance claims for Hurricane Harvey are projected to exceed $7 billion, and with almost 30 percent of all policies located in Florida, the economic toll after Hurricane Irma will likely be much higher.  

These two back-to-back storms exposed the vulnerability of the program and underscore why Congress must prioritize substantial NFIP reform, not just reauthorization. Such reform includes:

Congress must ensure the program continues to move toward full-risk based rates to achieve a financially stable program, and to impress upon homeowners their true risk of flooding. Today, policyholders under the NFIP pay artificially low insurance premiums that fail to reflect the likely risk of flooding. A recent report by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office reveals that taxpayers effectively subsidize 85 percent of NFIP properties exposed to storm surge from coastal storms.

Congress must mandate greater disclosure and transparency of flood risk data. Homeowners should have the right to know about their property’s history of flood damages. Too often, people buy a home only to find out later that it is susceptible to flooding. If previous owners filed an NFIP claim, FEMA has key flood history for the property. Homeowners, whether or not they currently have NFIP coverage, should have a right to this information. Providing the flood history of a property can help homeowners make informed decisions.

Additionally, Congress should ensure greater accessibility and transparency of NFIP data to accurately inform the broader public (including researchers, city planners, and emergency responders) about flood risk. The public has a right to know where flood damages occur, the cost of those damages, and what communities are doing to reduce their vulnerability to flooding. Congress should require FEMA to make this information available. This information would provide a better understanding of flood risk and the exposure faced by the NFIP, especially important as sea levels rise and extreme rainstorms become more common, which could be key to encouraging more risk-adverse behavior and/or mitigation actions. 

Congress, through the NFIP, should direct FEMA to provide more assistance to homeowners who would like to relocate, instead of repeatedly rebuild after every flood. Implementing such a program would empower homeowners to escape the cycle of flooding and rebuilding, and would lessen the NFIP’s financial exposure by removing some of these continuously-flooded properties from its books. The NFIP historically focused on rebuilding flooded properties—often multiple times―instead of helping homeowners move out of harm’s way. In the United States, more than 30,000 properties have been flooded an average of five times each and then been rebuilt each time through the NFIP. Some of these properties have flooded more than 30 times.

Account for Future Flood Risks in Disaster Planning

Federal, state, and local governments must include future risks in all disaster planning and preparedness efforts. The nation no longer has the luxury of looking to past events as an indication of what to expect in the future. We live in a much more flood-prone world and our approach must reflect that new reality.

Every state develops plans to reduce their communities’ vulnerability to disasters, like flooding. Known as “hazard mitigation plans,” they help states plan and prepare for natural disasters, and develop strategies to keep their citizens safe.

To make these plans truly effective, states must account for future risks. Basing their plans on looking backward at natural disasters that they have experienced in the past will not predict the future. States and local governments that develop such plans must account for an increasing risk of flooding, including sea level rise for coastal communities. Otherwise, they will dangerously underestimate potential disasters.

In 2015, FEMA required states to begin factoring future conditions into their hazard mitigation plans. States should take such a requirement seriously and develop their plans accordingly, as it is best way to protect people and property and reduce vulnerability. The Trump administration and Congress should leave these requirements in place because, in the long-run, the federal government will pick up the tab for states and local communities failing to prepare for future disasters.

Learn the Lessons of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have been catastrophic. The associated recovery costs will far exceed past disasters. These hurricanes portend the types of coastal storms and flooding disasters that the United States can expect in the future. The nation’s flood risk management must change, and it should start with the Trump administration and Congress following through on the actions discussed above

About the Authors

Joel Scata

Project Attorney

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