House Climate Plan Takes Aim at Flooding and Sea Level Rise

People and communities continue to be vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather events as sea levels rise causes more flooding—and that’s a trend that will continue. The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis just released an important report recognizing this challenge and it’s a demonstration of the type of leadership we desperately need now.

Among the 538 pages of recommendations included in the Committee Report, “Solving the Climate Crisis,” are recommendations that can make the nation safer from the floods, hurricanes, and related disasters that continue to grow in frequency or magnitude. Many of those recommendations focus on insurance (both from private insurers and the National Flood Insurance Program) and improved building codes and development standards.

People and communities are increasingly at risk from flooding and sea level rise.

Photo by Jocelyn Augustino - Oct 12, 2016 - Location: Lumberton, North Carolina

According to the report, between 2017 and 2019 six hurricanes caused $332 billion in damage to communities. Catastrophic floods also caused billions in damage throughout the Midwest in 2019 and in central Louisiana, Texas, North Carolina, and South Carolina in 2015 and 2016.

While the financial toll of these events is staggering, the disruption to people’s lives is far more serious. In the Carolinas and Texas people have suffered through multiple flood disasters in recent years.

Flooding is increasing in the U.S. as major storms and hurricanes become more frequent or stronger.

NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters (2020). https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/, DOI: 10.25921/stkw-7w73

This growing trend of major flood disasters, chronic tidal flooding in coastal areas, and stormwater-related flooding in urban areas are problems the Select Committee Report seeks to address. I’d like to highlight three important areas of recommendations included in the report that would greatly assist the nation’s climate adaptation and resilience efforts.

  • Improving Building Codes and Standards. The codes and standards that guide where and how we build do not account for the potential for flooding that happens more frequently or is more severe, so we are essentially codifying that practice of putting people and property in harm’s way.
  • Insurance—an essential tool for dealing with growing risk. Insurance can’t stop a disaster from happening, but it provides a safety net that help with rebuilding and rebuilding smarter. Too few people insure their homes, and too few communities insure their infrastructure and facilities.
  • National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) reform. So many reforms are needed and the program is so essential to our future climate resilience efforts that the NFIP deserves its own section in the Committee Report and in this blog.

Improving Building Codes and Standards

Remarkably, building codes typically fail to account for escalating flood risks, which explains, in part, why communities continue to build homes, hospitals, nursing homes, and major infrastructure assets without recognizing the risks. The result is that they’re making development decisions that they’ll later regret. This needs to change.

Among the recommendations that the Committee’s Report makes include:

  • Create a federal flood protection standard that requires all projects that receivie federal funding be built with an additional margin of safety for future flooding. A similar standard was put in place by President Obama, but the executive order was revoked by President Trump days before Hurricane Harvey struck Texas in 2017. (p. 421)
  • Inventory all federal buildings and facilities that are located in floodplains so the federal government knows how many of its own assets are at risk. If you don’t know what’s at risk, you can’t take action to protect them or relocate them to higher ground. (p. 421)
  • Require communities to adopt stronger construction standards and risk management practices as a prerequisite for debt repayment relief under FEMA’s Community Disaster Loan Program. (p. 423-424)
  • Communities should adopt better standards and practices to minimize damage from wildfires and windstorms (like broader use of fire-safe shingles or storm shutters) (p. 415-418)
  • Require Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to only take on government-backed loans that meet stronger standards for flood and wildfire resilience. A recent New York Times investigative story indicates that banks may already be offloading at-risk properties to Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. (p. 399)

Insurance—an essential tool for dealing with growing risk

I know…insurance.  Who likes thinking about insurance? But it’s essential, considering the growing risk of natural disasters and commensurate rise in potential damage to one’s home and the things that make your community function (roads, schools, water treatment plants, etc.)

Far too few communities insure their own assets (e.g. sewage treatment plans, bridges or public buildings). And far too few people secure coverage against floods (in particular) but also other types of risks that may not be covered by a typical renter’s or homeowner’s policy.

The Committee Report includes several excellent recommendations.

  • Allowing communities to use FEMA disaster mitigation grants to pay for insurance policies when payouts would support community-based buyouts, relocation, and resettlement projects. (p. 404)
  • Directing the Mitigation Framework Leadership Group (this includes multiple federal agencies with a role in infrastructure or emergency management) to recommend ways communities and governments can use a suite of other approaches, like catastrophe bonds, parametric insurance, and climate risk pools to provide post-disaster resources for rebuilding more resiliently. (p. 404)
  • Direct FEMA to find ways to incentivize communities to purchase insurance, catastrophe bonds, or other means of coverage for public buildings and infrastructure, so federal disaster aid is not needed after each disaster to support rebuilding. (p. 405)
  • FEMA and private insurers should collaborate on how an “all-hazards” insurance policy can be made available from private insurers to homeowners. Because so many people under-insure their properties, they find themselves in a tough spot after a disaster occurs. A more comprehensive all-hazards policy would cover a wide range of risks and if purchased widely, could theoretically be financially sound. (p. 405)

National Flood Insurance Program Reform (as promised!)

Reforming this troubled program is a priority for NRDC and we’re pleased that it’s singled out in the Committee Report as a priority area for climate resilience and adaptation efforts. Given the millions of Americans who will be placed in peril by sea level rise and escalating inland flood risks, the NFIP should be a lynchpin in the nation’s climate adaptation plans. In its current form it’s a liability.

Recognizing this, the Committee Report recommends several critical and overdue reforms, many of which have been NFIP priorities for NRDC.

  • Ensure that FEMA is factoring future sea-level rise and extreme storm events into their flood maps. (p. 409)
  • Direct FEMA to publish flood risk data in a format that is publicly available and useful for decisions about home-buying, choosing where to live, or siting major infrastructure assets. Ensure this information is disclosed to all homebuyers prior to closing. (p. 410)
  • Congress should require that owners of properties disclose personal knowledge of past flood damages, prior flood damage claims, and known incidents of flooding to renters or prospective buyers. Shamefully, the majority of states fail to require disclosure of this information, so Congress needs to fix the problem. (note: NRDC gets a nice citation in the report for our research with Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center) (p. 413)
  • Require all federal agencies that provide home financing (HUD, FHA, Veteran’s Administration), as well as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to secure all federal loans and loan guarantees with flood insurance coverage. Too many people (including renters) who live in housing backed by federal financial assistance live in homes that are not insured. (p. 410)
  • Direct FEMA to assess risk-based rates for NFIP coverage and ensure that coverage remains affordable for lower-income people, so they are not forced to choose between leaving their home or being without coverage. (p. 410)
  • Direct FEMA to begin assessing urban flooding risk. Currently, FEMA’s flood mapping methodology does not account for urban flooding. To get a sense of just how serious the problem of urban flooding is, you can look at First Street Foundation’s recent report on mapping flood risks. (p. 414)

About the Authors

Rob Moore

Senior Policy Analyst, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program
Blog Post

This is clearly the most detailed, robust congressional plan on climate change we have seen to date and we hope Congress will act on its solutions quickly. The big picture take away is that this plan recognizes the need for a comprehensive approach that bends the whole of government and private action toward being part of the solution not being part of the problem.

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