This year’s hurricane season has been unrelenting for the Gulf and Atlantic coasts—flooding homes, businesses, schools, roads and other places of community vitality, and leaving costly devastation and stunted economies behind. Although increasingly intense and frequent storms are to blame, so are our national flood policies, which remain woefully out of date and fail to support flood-prone communities.
For decades, decisions about where and how to build buildings and infrastructure using federal dollars in areas susceptible to flooding have been guided by dated flood maps and historical data. This failed approach for determining the vulnerability of structures assumes that federally backed projects outside a 100-year flood plain are not at risk, and does not account for more recent threats, such as rising seas, heavier downpours, lost wetlands, and increased residential and commercial development.
This long-standing approach is also costly: Economic losses and property damage from flood-related disasters have increased by more than $100 billion every decade since the 1980s.
It’s time for the federal government to take action to improve the nation’s resilience to flooding and to ensure that taxpayer dollars aren’t wasted building or rebuilding—often more than once—after a flood.
The Flood Resiliency and Taxpayer Savings Act of 2020 (H.R. 8462), introduced by Rep. David E. Price (D-NC) and Lee Zeldin (R-NY) in September, directs federal agencies to plan for future flood risks. The bill requires agencies to use the best available data from the most recent flood maps, state and local assessments, models, and hydrologic studies to determine the future risk to taxpayer-funded projects—such as schools and hospitals, roads and bridges, and utilities. When good data is unavailable, the bill directs agencies to build in a margin of safety, such as nature-based mitigation strategies or elevation to protect federal investments from future damage and losses.
States and localities from Connecticut to California are incorporating future risk into decisions about how and where to build. This approach includes asking scientific experts to provide data for localized maps of sea level rise and then using that knowledge to upgrade development policies. In Florida, newly enacted legislation requires state-funded projects in coastal areas to account for the impact of sea-level rise decades into the future. Broward County, meanwhile, is saving taxpayer resources by considering sea level rise and more intense rainfall as the county makes new drainage investments. And in North Carolina, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg stormwater utility has pioneered an approach that accommodates new structural growth for the city while assuring that the development does not adversely impact existing homes and businesses, or make flooding worse for that area.
Significantly, H.R. 8462 also gives agencies the flexibility to limit damage by using a range of mitigation strategies, including nature-based solutions—such as preservation or restoration of wetlands, rivers, and green space—as an alternative or supplement to traditional hard barriers such as levees and seawalls. These nature-based solutions have historically been overlooked by government agencies, despite a growing body of evidence that they work. For example, in 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, coastal wetlands prevented an estimated $625 million in property damage throughout the Northeast.
With hurricanes and other flood-related disasters continuing to rack up costs for taxpayers, it is imperative that Congress act now to turn this bipartisan legislation into law. In doing so, lawmakers will have the support of the American people. Polling earlier this year by The Pew Charitable Trusts found that 85% of Americans support a requirement that all federally funded projects in flood-prone areas be constructed to better withstand future flooding. The trend of growing damage from flood-related disasters nationwide does not need to continue; smart planning and a strong flood-ready policy can cut costs and better protect our communities.
Tom Wathen is a vice president at The Pew Charitable Trusts, leading the organization’s work on land conservation projects that span the globe. Laura Lightbody is the director of Pew’s flood-prepared communities project.
This article first appeared on The Hill.