Following Hurricane Devastation, Calls to Bring Back the Federal Flood Standards Get Louder
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Hurricanes Maria, Irma and Harvey have starkly exposed just how vulnerable America remains, and how much more must be done to rein in the causes and impacts of climate change and strengthen our nation’s resilience to extreme weather events.
American citizens in Puerto Rico are likely to go for months without reliable electricity, or adequate drinking water as a result of the devastation left in the wake of Maria. If you combine that alongside the storm’s massive economic impacts, estimated anywhere from $40 to $85 billion in insured losses throughout the Caribbean, Maria exposes the fragility of the built environment–and the extensive economic losses caused by the lack of climate resiliency.
While the exact degree to which global warming increases the intensity of hurricanes continues to be analyzed and debated, indisputably there are basic physical dynamics of climate change that contribute to the impacts of hurricanes. Warmer waters in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico evaporate more readily; warmer air can hold more moisture, which can then be dumped in increasingly extreme rainfall events; and warmer waters provide more fuel to strengthen hurricanes rapidly and boost wind speeds.
Days before Harvey made landfall, President Trump signed an executive order that weakens the country’s resilience against growing climate risks. The executive order specifically rolls back implementation of the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, known as FFRMS. This was done on the very same day that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced that July tied the record for the hottest month in recorded history.
FFRMS, signed in 2015, provided federal agencies three options to reduce the risks of flooding when investing in new infrastructure projects and federal facilities. Agencies could use the best available climate science to evaluate and reduce risk exposures; they could require standard infrastructure to be built two feet above the 100-year floodplain, with critical infrastructure like hospitals elevated three feet; or they could require infrastructure to be built to at least the 500-year floodplain — all common sense approaches in the face of a changing climate.
Federal Emergency Management Agency studies have shown that each dollar spent on mitigating disaster losses saves an average of $4 in avoided post-disaster recovery and rebuilding costs. So why would the federal government reverse course and choose not to invest taxpayer dollars in a responsible and risk-informed way?
One silver lining of Harvey’s unprecedented and devastating flooding is that it has provided compelling cause for reconsideration. The Washington Post recently reported that the Trump administration might be reconsidering its planned rollback of the FFRMS. Members of Congress are demanding action as well, with Sen. Tom Carper (D-MD), the ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee calling for President Trump to reinstate the FFRMS, along with a range of other climate preparedness and resiliency actions. Businesses are also joining the chorus, with the Ceres BICEP Network recently sending a letter to President Trump stating, “we must, as businesses, pursue long-term preparation to lessen the costly climate change-fueled impacts on our economy and communities.”
Even before Harvey’s landfall in Texas, recent major flooding events struck different parts of the country as a result of extreme rainfall events. Thunderstorms flooded New Orleans, dropping up to 10 inches of rain in a matter of hours, and overwhelmed the city’s pumping stations, which are designed to move water out of low-lying city’s streets. A few days earlier, Miami was subjected to up to 7 inches of rain in a few hours, flooding city streets after pump stations lost power due to lightning, and sea level rise-enhanced high tides blocked drainage routes for the run-off. And now Irma and Maria have brought extreme rainfall, high winds and massive sea level rise-enhanced storm surge to Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic coasts, as well as Puerto Rico and across the Caribbean, respectively.
Recognizing that such climate-driven impacts are intensifying, credit rating agencies are taking stronger positions on building flood resilience. For example, in 2016 Moody’s Investors Service, one of the leading global credit rating agencies, identified climate-driven natural disaster risks as having huge economic impacts in both developed and developing economies. In particular, Moody’s noted that over the past 35 years, floods and storms have been occurring more frequently, and 80 percent of natural disasters were weather-related. Moody’s research has led the company to integrate climate risk into its sovereign credit assessments.
Rhode Island-based commercial insurance company FM Global recently released a forward-looking Global Flood Map that highlights moderate and high-hazard flood zones around the world. The company’s goal is to help its clients, ranging from Fortune 500 companies to smaller enterprises, more responsibly site their facilities and build resilience into their operations and supply chains. Catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide, which provides data and analytics for insurance and reinsurance company clients, released a U.S. flood model that provides realistic estimates of how flooding-related losses could affect specific geographic areas down to individual property locations. Such analyses could help evaluate potential flood risks for existing and planned infrastructure.
All of these developments are happening amid debate about reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program, the FEMA-administered program that provides flood insurance to millions of homeowners and businesses. A major focus has been on provisions related to making smart investments to help reduce property owners’ flood risks and build resilience in order to shield the NFIP – and taxpayers – from excessive, avoidable losses. As the flood-related losses from Harvey as well as Irma and Maria will strain the finances of the massively-indebted NFIP, lawmakers must consider how to shore up the program for the long term — including by helping to reinforce infrastructure against future risks.
While it cannot substitute for robust federal government action, the good news is that many private sector leaders, and many local governments, are setting examples that can and should be followed to minimize the risks of climate change. At a minimum, the current administration should reinstate the FFRMS to protect people, the environment and the economy, and to build a more climate resilient future.
Mindy Lubber is CEO and President at Ceres. Ceres is a sustainability nonprofit organization working with the most influential investors and companies to build leadership and drive solutions throughout the economy.