White House and Congress Made Significant Strides in 2021 to Improve U.S. Flood Policies

Actions lay groundwork for breaking costly cycle of damage and repair from disasters

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White House and Congress Made Significant Strides in 2021 to Improve U.S. Flood Policies
An aerial shot of of a suburban neighborhood with flooded streets and front yards with downed trees and powerlines.
Floodwaters from Hurricane Sally inundate streets and properties in West Pensacola, Florida, on Sept. 16, 2020.
Bryan Tarnowski for The Washington Post via Getty Images

There has been no shortage of devastating and costly flooding across the U.S. this year. Relentless rains inundated communities in California with more than a foot of water in January; record deluges struck Arkansas in early June; storm surges and torrential downpours plagued much of the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard during August and September; and an atmospheric river of moisture drenched the Pacific Northwest in November. With extreme weather becoming increasingly common, it is imperative that the country modernize its approach to addressing the growing threat of flooding. In January, we outlined three areas of action that the Biden administration and Congress should prioritize to better prepare communities for these events. As the year comes to an end, Congress and the administration have made considerable progress toward addressing these critical issues.

Among these successes, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was signed into law in November, includes unprecedented provisions to improve the resilience of communities and the roads, bridges, and other critical infrastructure they depend on daily; federal agencies released climate adaptation plans and rolled out initiatives to modernize outdated approaches toward pricing flood insurance; and President Joe Biden has issued executive orders to better protect federally funded projects from future risk.

Here are some of the highlights of the progress made since the beginning of the year:

Making federal investments flood-ready

The Biden administration and Congress are making strides toward accounting for future flood risk in federally funded projects. This includes the administration’s reinstatement of the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (FFRMS), which had been revoked in 2017 and requires new federal investments in flood-prone areas to incorporate safeguards that account for the dynamic nature of flood risk.

In August, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced an interim policy that partially implements the FFRMS for certain noncritical actions involving structures in flood-prone areas and are funded by the agency’s Hazard Mitigation Assistance programs. Implementing the flood standard is among the priorities in some of the climate adaptation and resilience plans that more than 20 federal agencies released in October. Pew urged all agencies to prioritize carrying out the FFRMS in comments responding to the Council on Environmental Quality’s request for public input on the plans.

In Congress, Representatives David Price (D-NC) and Lee Zeldin (R-NY) reintroduced the Flood Resiliency and Taxpayer Savings Act (H.R. 481) in January. The bill would codify a federal flood standard, making taxpayer-supported projects safer by directing federal agencies to ensure that they are planned and designed to withstand flooding throughout their lifetimes. The flexible framework outlined in the legislation would allow project designers to leverage the best available data in their planning process and consider a menu of options, including nature-based solutions, to lessen the effects of future flooding.

Improving the National Flood Insurance Program

In April, FEMA announced a new rate-setting methodology for federally backed flood insurance policies called Risk Rating 2.0: Equity in Action. The initiative aligns National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) rates more closely to risk, makes rates fairer, and encourages policyholders and communities to reduce flood risk. Instead of all policyholders experiencing rate increases—as they did under the previous pricing system—Risk Rating 2.0 decreases insurance premiums for more than 1 million policyholders nationwide. The updated rating approach went into effect for newly written NFIP policies in October and will apply to all existing policies in April 2022. Pew partnered with the Association of State Floodplain Managers on an interactive map that shows the new insurance rates across states and ZIP codes.

On the legislative front, Congress is considering reforms to the NFIP, which is set to expire in February. It has been reauthorized without changes 18 times over the past four years. In June, Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA) unveiled draft legislation to reform and reauthorize the NFIP, including creation of a program to help states fund self-sustaining, low-interest loans to support local mitigation planning and projects.

And the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held hearings in May and June focused on NFIP reauthorization and strategies to improve the program. These hearings, which included live testimony from Pew, provided an in-depth discussion of critical issues such as repeatedly flooded properties, which have historically accounted for as little as 1% of NFIP policies but between 25% and 30% of claims. The hearings also focused on the need to give communities more resources to lower flood risk and establish a federal requirement that prospective homebuyers and renters are provided timely information on a property’s flooding history. Collectively, these reforms could improve the financial solvency and effectiveness of the NFIP, which is currently more than $20 billion in debt to the U.S. Treasury.

Enhancing infrastructure resilience

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act features landmark resilience provisions to better prepare infrastructure and communities for the growing threat of natural hazards, such as heavier downpours and rising seas. These provisions include an infusion of an additional $1 billion and $3.5 billion into the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) and Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA) programs, respectively, over five years; creation of a first-of-its-kind resilient transportation program to support state and local assessments, planning, and projects that reduce vulnerability to natural disasters; allowing some existing federal transportation programs to include resilience measures; and the inclusion of nature-based solutions among the menu of resilience approaches employed by states and localities.

The need for these types of provisions and others were discussed during infrastructure-focused congressional hearings in March, where Pew provided testimony before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management.

In August, FEMA announced a significant boost in the amount of funding available to states, territories, tribes, and communities for risk reduction and preparedness projects. Separate from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act investments noted above, FEMA made $1 billion available in fiscal year 2021 for the BRIC program, doubling the amount provided the prior year to support state and community planning and projects to proactively reduce disaster risk. The agency also announced the availability of nearly $3.5 billion in Hazard Mitigation Grant Program funding. Additionally, the agency devoted $160 million to the FMA grant program for fiscal 2021, for use in reducing the risk of repetitive damage to homes and businesses insured by the NFIP.

Although there is work left to be done at the federal level, these recent federal actions and legislative developments demonstrate steady progress toward incorporating resilience into federal programs, projects, and investments. If fully implemented, such changes—including some that still need to be passed and signed into law—can put the nation on a pathway to comprehensively breaking the costly cycle of damage and repair from flooding and other disasters.

Forbes Tompkins is a manager and Brian Watts is a senior associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ flood-prepared communities project.

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