The Need for Updated Federal Flood Risk Standards

Historic flooding has devastated South Carolina. More than eleven dams have failed, 381 roads and 127 bridges have been closed, and hundreds and hundreds of homes have been inundated by rising flood waters. Most tragically, 15 people have died.

Photo Credit: South Carolina National Guard

While disasters like this are heart-wrenching, they do provide an all-too-vivid reminder of why we not only need to be better prepared for natural disasters, but also must recognize how climate change will fuel their intensity.

The flooding in South Carolina and the floods in Texas, Oklahoma, and elsewhere make the case for robust implementation of President Obama's updated federal flood risk standards. The Federal Flood Risk Management Standard will protect people and property, reduce disaster costs in form of avoided damages, and save tax-payer dollars.

High Costs of Flooding

The economic consequences of this flood will be high. According to the reinsurance company, Aon Benfield, economic losses are likely to exceed $1 billion.

South Carolina is still not out of the woods. Even though the sunshine has returned, flooding will continue to occur. Major rivers have yet to crest as runoff from upstream tributaries is still making its way to the Atlantic Ocean.

The federal government will likely pick up a significant portion of the post-disaster tab. Only 200,000 National Flood Insurance policies are in effect in South Carolina, and as this storm event was a 1-1000 chance occurrence, a significant number of damaged properties will likely be uninsured and in need of disaster assistance.

NFIP Payouts (since 1978)

State

Total Paid Claims
(as of 7/31/2015)

Total Payments
(as of 7/31/2015)

South Carolina

18,712

S441,763,974.83

2015- A Year for Floods

Unfortunately, this is not the only devastating flood to have occurred this year. In May, terrible floods ripped through Oklahoma and Texas leaving in their path a wake of destruction. To date, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has paid out $62.3 million in public and individual assistance grants in Texas and $30.6 million in Oklahoma and an additional $179 million on 3,861 flood insurance claims in both states. These numbers are even more sobering when you consider that they only reflect a small portion of the total amount of damage that occurred - an estimated $3 billion in Texas alone.

And these are just the numbers for Texas and Oklahoma. Over the summer, flood - related disaster declarations were announced in Vermont, Iowa, and Kentucky, and are indicative of a growing trend. The federal government has assumed an increasing proportion of the financial responsibility associated with recovery after a flooding event, and as 85% of all disaster declarations are flood-related, this puts a heavy burden on the taxpayer.

Future of Extreme Weather

The economic consequences of the above-mentioned disasters become important when one realizes that the severity of extreme weather events is projected to increase. 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.

While individual storms cannot be directly attributed to climate change, climate change does increase the punch that they pack. Warmer air holds more water vapor than cooler air. Global analyses show that the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere has in fact increased over both land and oceans. When a storm comes through, more water is available in the atmosphere to be dumped on the area unfortunate enough to be in the path of the storm. Thus, not only will the storms of the future be more severe, so will the associated damages.

Safer Federal Flood Risk Standards Needed

Irrespective of whether you believe climate change is man-made or a natural occurrence, the climate is changing and we need to adapt. We need to build the adaptive capacity of our local communities by safeguarding public infrastructure - such as the bridges, roads, and wastewater treatment plants - on which we depend.

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).

When the flood waters subside and the rebuilding efforts begin, the intent of the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard should be kept in mind. The climate is changing and how we rebuild and recovery after a disaster should change with it.

About the Authors

Joel Scata

Water and Climate Attorney, Water Initiatives, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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