Want to Build with Federal Funds? New Order Requires Planning for Future Flood Risk

Executive order helps ensure tax dollars aren't wasted on repairing projects that just end up getting flooded again.

Aftermath of extensive flooding along the New Jersey shore in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. Credit: Greg Thompson/USFWS

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President Barack Obama’s latest executive order looks to curb future damages from one of the nation’s most common and costly forms of climate-related disasters: flooding.

The order, issued Jan. 30, creates a new Federal Flood Risk Management Standard that requires current—and future—flood risk assessments to be rolled into the planning and construction of federally funded projects in and around floodplains.

Today, most agencies determine a new construction project’s flood hazard based on historic flood data, not future flood projections. In fact, the latest flood hazard maps designed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency do not currently account for future risks—although the agency is working on this.

According to a White House blog post by John Podesta, an energy and climate adviser to the president, and Craig Fugate, head of FEMA, this new order will “help communities bounce back faster from disasters.” In the 1990s, for example, floods were responsible for property damages totaling approximately $50 billion.

The post also links climate change to a projected increase in U.S. flood frequency and intensity. Specifically, it cites new research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicting that most of the coast “will face 30 or more days of flooding each year by 2050 because of sea level rise.” Over 39 percent of the U.S. population lives in coastal counties, and, according to the National Climate Assessment, there’s over $1 billion in coastal infrastructure and property at risk of inundation.

Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, applauds this order. “Losses are increasing and what we are doing is not working,” he said. This order helps ensure “that we are not wasting tax dollars on repairing projects that just end up getting flooded again.”

But the move, recommended by the president’s State, Local and Tribal Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, drew criticism from Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), an avid defender of affordable national flood insurance rates. In a letter sent to the president ahead of the official announcement, Vitter called the effort a “long-term PR stunt” and said it could trigger increases in flood insurance rates. The administration has said flood insurance rates won’t be impacted.

Berginnis said projects that apply the stricter building standards could see insurance premiums cut 50 to 70 percent.

Below is a guide to the new flood standard:

What’s in the new Federal Flood Risk Management Standard?

The standard requires, for the first time to such a comprehensive degree, that all new or rebuilt federally funded projects in and around a floodplain must account for the impacts of climate change. It specifically calls for both current and future flood risk in a project’s siting, planning and construction. The standard also encourages agencies to use green, or nature-based, approaches when designing projects.

Why an executive order?

Facing a Republican-led Congress resistant to climate change action, President Obama is increasingly turning to executive orders for new initiatives. Earlier in January, the president signed another climate-related executive order to address climate change in the Arctic.

Why now?

With only two years left in office, Obama is looking to secure his climate legacy. In the most recent State of the Union address, he said: “I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our [climate action] efforts. I am determined to make sure American leadership drives international action.”

How is climate change expected to impact U.S. flood hazards?

Climate change is generally expected to increase the frequency and intensity of U.S. flooding. Sea level rise, heavy rain events and storm surge would all contribute to increased coastal flooding. Inland flooding would similarly be exacerbated from more intense and common rainstorms.

What projects will be affected?

The measure will impact all new or expected-to-be rebuilt structures that rely on federal funding. This could include roads, bridges or ports. It could also include hospitals, emergency shelters, energy projects or military bases. It could affect some homeowners or business owners turning to FEMA to rebuild after a hurricane or winter storm.

How is a project’s developer expected to comply?

Agencies will have three ways to calculate where and how high they can build. The first option is to use data and planning “informed by best-available, actionable climate science” on current and future flood risks.

The second option is two build 3 feet above the 100-year flood elevation—that’s where there is a 1 percent annual chance of a flood—for “critical” projects such as hospitals; non-critical projects should be built 2 feet above that level.

The third option is to build to the elevation of a 500-year flood event.

What are the costs associated with this plan?

The motivation for this standard is to minimize flood-related expenses in the long run. To get there will require investment up front, although exactly how much isn’t specifically detailed. A major cost will come from raising new structures above the 100-year flood level, also known as the “base flood elevation” level. According to an Obama administration official, raising new structures above this point “generally adds 0.25 to 1.5 percent to the total cost of construction for each foot of added height.” The plan won’t affect the standard or rates of the National Flood Insurance Program.

Are any agencies or communities already taking these steps?

There are several examples. The Obama administration’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force required certain new structures along the East Coast to be built at least one foot above the base flood elevation. At least 350 communities already mandate a flood risk standard that meets or exceeds the one the federal government is now adopting, according to the Obama administration.

What’s the timeline for getting this standard up and running?

Starting Jan. 30, the public has 60 days to email comments on the draft implementation guidelines to FEMA. After public input is taken into account, the guidelines will be finalized. Then individual agencies will create their own process for implementing the requirements.