By Jake Assael
Hurricane Hermine made landfall this September, tearing through the East Coast leaving massive destruction, erosion, and taking at least one life in its wake. Hermine, which had been called the worst hurricane since Sandy, was exacerbated by rising sea levels, increasing coastal flooding and beach erosion, putting billions worth of low-lying infrastructure at risk. Hermine had come just weeks after calamitous Louisiana flooding, which took thirteen lives, damaged 110,000 homes and caused the state nearly $9 billion in damages. As sea levels continue to increase at dramatic rates, storm surges and flood events will naturally increase, continuing to put coastal infrastructure in harm’s way.
On August 22, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) proposed amendments to its regulations on, “Floodplain Management and Protection of Wetlands,” that could require federally funded infrastructure projects to be built as much as 3-feet higher than the 100-year floodplain. The regulation is a result of an executive order (EO 13690) issued by President Obama in 2015. The order, titled ‘Establishing a Federal Flood Risk Management Standard and a Process for Further Soliciting and Considering Stakeholder Input,’ required that FEMA amend its regulations to improve the Nation’s preparedness and resilience against flooding, as part of a national policy on resilience and risk reduction consistent with the president’s Climate Action Plan.
Under the new regulations construction projects financed by the government in flood-prone areas must build two feet above the 100-year floodplain, for standard projects, or three feet above for critical action projects, which includes hospitals or nursing homes. Projects also have the option of building to the 500-year floodplain or to use the best available scientific models, which often combine flood records with other factors like sea level rise data. The proposal seeks to rewrite the current 100-year flood standard, which for the past five decades only asked federally funded projects be built at or above the 100-year level. In any given year, a 100-year flood only has a 1% chance of occurring, but has become more common, with Maryland, Louisiana and West Virginia experiencing such floods. The regulation will also ensure that taxpayer-funded investments are built to a standard that reduces future losses, and the financial strain of post-disaster spending.
Despite the forward thinking behind the regulation, there has been backlash. With an ever- changing coastline, and accompanying floodplain maps, the rule changes can make it difficult to predict where a building can be located. There are also concerns surrounding the potential increase in costs, which several Republicans, including Rep. Ralph Abraham of Louisiana have noted. Of the 24 parishes Rep. Abraham represents, 22 have flooded this year.
The proposed regulation which was published in the Federal Register on August 22, is currently in the public comment period, which ends on October 21 of this year (click here to comment).
Safeguarding infrastructure standards is just another step in the battle against sea level rise. With sea levels predicted to surge as high as six feet by 2100, in the upper end of accepted estimates, coastal communities are at risk of being wiped from the map. America’s coastal counties account for 45% of the Nation’s GDP and 39% of its population, but receive little help with resilience from the federal government. In 2016, the federal budget allocated $130 million to shore protection, a mere fraction of what is needed to combat rising seas, especially when you factor in that the Army Corps of Engineers needs $80 million to fulfill just its commitments in New Jersey. Major coastal areas such as New York, San Francisco, Miami, and Norfolk have had to look inward, spending millions of their own money to fund coastal restoration and resilience projects. As for the hundreds of coastal communities that lack deep pools of tax revenue, they remain heavily dependent on the Energy & Water Development Appropriations Bill, which appropriates funding to shoreline protection projects, and the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which authorizes projects for funding after they have gone through an arduous study and review process.
As Congress returns from its summer recess, both bills still face a difficult journey, stalling the ability of coastal communities to prepare for future coastal flooding. Although the current administration has done little to increase shoreline protection funding, the proposed FEMA regulation is a step in the right direction. Albeit potentially costing developers more in the short term, the long term benefits are undeniable. Raising the standards of construction projects funded partially or entirely by the federal government will mitigate future infrastructure destruction, potentially saving lives, while conserving taxpayer dollars and reducing disaster relief spending.
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