Washington Must Modernize Policy to Make America Flood-Ready

At Pew-hosted event, experts call for mitigation investments, revolving loans, and property buyouts

Washington Must Modernize Policy to Make America Flood-Ready
Infrastructure
Neal Rackleff, assistant secretary with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, discussed solutions to improve infrastructure resiliency at a May 16 Capitol Hill briefing.
Evelyn Hockstein/The Pew Charitable Trusts

The U.S. government could save millions of dollars and help keep Americans and their communities safer during floods by investing in mitigation before disasters strike. That was the overarching message of a May 16 briefing in Washington with Senator Jack Reed (D-RI); Neal Rackleff, assistant secretary with the Department of Housing and Urban Development; and other flood and infrastructure experts. The Pew Charitable Trusts hosted the discussion, which was held on Capitol Hill and focused on funding for flood mitigation and solutions to increase the resiliency of infrastructure.

“We want to do everything we can to build back better,” said Rackleff. In April, HUD announced nearly $16 billion to support disaster mitigation projects—such as drainage improvements and soft landscaping that resists storm surge better than hard infrastructure does—for areas in 11 states and territories affected by major disasters since 2015.

That assistance, though significant, is a one-time expenditure. Reed, who is on the Senate banking committee and is the ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development, said communities need more consistent funding to prepare for storms.

“We’ve got to treat mitigation like any other kind of infrastructure,” he told the audience. “You have to keep improving it; you have to plan for it. It can’t be on and off, where you binge on mitigation and go off and forget about it.”

In June 2017, Reed introduced legislation that would create a revolving loan fund to give states a self-replenishing stream of money for a variety of mitigation projects.

“The National Flood Insurance Program is under tremendous stress,” Reed said, referring to the federal program that covers 5 million Americans in 22,000 communities nationwide. “Family homes built along the coast in the 1950s and ’60s—if they get hit, they’re gone. They need access to low-interest loans to raise properties up so the water can rush underneath. This is terribly important, and [the revolving loan fund] gives states the flexibility to do that.”

Reed’s proposal, co-sponsored by Senators John Kennedy (R-LA) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), is based on a proven model: the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which has leveraged $42 billion in federal investment for $126 billion in clean water projects since 1987.

The pending legislation would help places such as Miami, where sea-level rise poses an existential threat.

“Risk is going to be increasing exponentially,” said Jane Gilbert, the city’s chief resilience officer, who spoke on a panel at the briefing with Tom Smith, executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers; Craig Fugate, former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency; and Ryan Colker, vice president of the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS).

To address the heightened risk, Smith said, the country is due for a culture shift. “We need to think differently and recognize [that] an ounce of prevention [is] worth a pound of cure. When you recognize the dire straits of our infrastructure today, rebuilding back to its old state is unacceptable, because much of [our infrastructure] is very near and in fact way past the end of its useful life. We have to think long term.” More local officials are recognizing these important principles.

The benefits of planning ahead for disasters are real, said Colker of NIBS, which earlier this year released a report, “Mitigation Saves,” that found a $6 return for every dollar spent on mitigation. A follow-up report by NIBS, slated for release in October, will look at the return on investment specific to infrastructure resilience. Colker said there is no single solution for creating resilient communities; the challenge is to think about the benefits holistically. “How do we marry activities going on within federal, state, and local governments to things we can do in the private sector?” he asked.

Former FEMA Administrator Fugate agreed but said there is value in incremental wins. “If we reauthorize the flood insurance program with no changes, we fail,” he told the audience. The National Flood Insurance Program is up for reauthorization in July, and Fugate said it must include two major improvements: a provision that the federal government buy out properties from floodplains before storms occur to help address the costly cycle of repeatedly repairing the same flood-damaged properties, and the revolving loan fund that Sen. Reed has proposed.

“Think about how much money we could save if we set up a revolving fund that would grow as local governments pay [their loans] back,” Fugate said. “Then we wouldn’t have to come back here every year to get money. It would grow itself once it started.”