Two regulations whose aim is to help communities better prepare for floods are now frozen by the Trump Administration. As long as they’re on pause, vulnerable places don’t have to plan for the flood conditions that scientists predict are getting worse.
Which is important because floods are already the nation’s number one natural disaster risk. Just this week, Northern California saw its worst flooding in 100 years, after rushing waters breached a levee near a residential neighborhood. Areas at risk of flooding are expected to grow 45 percent by the end of this century. And in New York, scientists say, Superstorm-Sandy-like storm surges are growing more common.
The two rules, from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, share the same idea: that homeowners and builders can shrink flood risk when they build higher, and that flood planning should be more future proof.
“Climate change is making floods happen more frequently and could cause sea levels to rise as much as ten feet on the East Coast by the end of the century,” says Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, who says the rules make economic sense. “If the federal government is paying for something that needs to last 50 or 75 years, then it needs to be built to survive larger floods that could occur over that time frame.”
Fifty or 75 years is a long exposure to risk, by federal standards.
Using maps, models, and not a little bit of politics, the federal government sets a 100-year flood level for risky places – a level to which flood waters have a one percent chance of rising each year, over a century. A rule published by the Department of Housing and Urban Development would require that new or substantially HUD-financed homes be built to a level two to three feet above the 100-year level. (That two to three feet is called “freeboard”—a word I love. It’s originally a nautical term, referring to the dry wood above the water line on a boat.) Another part of the HUD rule expands the effective footprint of the floodplain, another way to protect against changing conditions.
FEMA has published its own rule that does the same thing for most construction projects it funds. And for critical buildings, like hospitals, FEMA has added a foot to the freeboard requirement. After Katrina, future planning and critical buildings were called out for special attention; this rule addresses both.
Some building interests and Louisiana congressmen criticized the rules for potentially introducing confusion and potentially costing money. The NRDC’s comments favor both rules. But environmentalists aren’t alone. Taxpayers for Common Sense says it’s, well, common sense. And the Association of State Floodplain Managers supports the rules too.
As that group points out, this isn’t radical stuff; 61 percent of the United States already live with some freeboard requirement, including 22 states, and hundreds more local places – including parishes most affected by Louisiana’s August 2016 floods, like Ascension and East Baton Rouge. A few, like Palm Beach County, treat all buildings the way FEMA treats critical ones.
It’s hard to say how these standards would work in a place like San Jose, where waters are still high and evacuations still active. Santa Clara County and the City of San Jose don’t appear to require what these rules would yet, though another nearby city, Morgan Hill, does.
An executive order issued by President Obama helped make these regulations possible. (You can’t find it at whitehouse.gov, it’s been disappeared, but it still exists, for now, here.) And while delaying regulations pushed by the previous administration is a time-honored tradition—sometimes, frozen rules un-freeze—a bigger threat is that these rules could disappear entirely.
“Revoking the executive order would make the nation more vulnerable to future hurricanes, floods, extreme weather events, and the impacts of climate change,” NRDC’s Moore tells me. “Those types of disasters are going to happen, no matter what the administration’s narrow-minded views are on climate change.”
Or on FEMA itself. Some conservatives whose thinking has proven influential to the administration already suggest that FEMA’s work can be shifted to the states. The Heritage Foundation’s playbook for the Trump administration’s budgeting, the “Blueprint for Balance,” envisions slashing FEMA’s budget on page 60, and Heritage’s separate “Blueprint for Reform” envisions limiting FEMA’s reach on page 61.)
Still, ignoring weather doesn’t make it go away. New research suggests Louisiana’s 2016 flood was even more intense than previously thought. “You can try and deny climate change, but it’s impossible to deny that communities are devastated by floods and hurricanes,” Moore says.
Those disasters keep coming. A record-breaking flood killed 26 people in West Virginia last June; the City of San Jose is still recovering. Of the 12 major emergency declarations FEMA has issued so far this year, three are related to floods.
The Coast Guard helped flood victims muck out a house in August 2016. By Coast Guard News; Creative Commons license.