2019 was yet another year of historic flooding for communities from Nebraska to Louisiana and capped the costliest decade of flood-related disasters in U.S. history. In fact, the 2010s were the third straight decade in which costs from these types of disaster increased by more than $100 billion.
One way to reduce these costs is through policies that better account for future flood risk in federally funded projects and help communities and states prepare for and respond to flooding more proactively. Lawmakers have made progress in recent years, but Congress and the Trump administration should do more to help reverse the trend of rising flood costs. They can start by taking advantage of these timely opportunities before the end of the year:
- Reauthorize the nation’s highway bill with resilience as a key pillar. The American Society of Civil Engineers has given the country’s infrastructure a D+ grade and estimates that trillions of dollars are needed to improve it to a state of adequacy. The majority of current federal funding for the country’s surface transportation infrastructure planning and investments is authorized through the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, which expires Sept. 30. The America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019, which advanced from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in July, would create resilience grants to help states and localities assess natural hazard risks and develop and implement projects to address them proactively. But lawmakers should do more. In reauthorizing hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to modernize our roads, highways, and bridges, Congress should include a requirement that all transportation planning and projects account for future risk.
- Create a Federal Highway Administration pre-disaster infrastructure program. The nation’s highways and roads are key to keeping Americans and goods moving, including during natural disasters, when those in danger need to evacuate and first responders need access to affected areas. And yet nearly 4 out of every 10 bridges are more than 50 years old, and 1 out of every 5 miles of highway is in poor condition. The Federal Highway Administration’s Emergency Relief Program gives states and localities access to disaster recovery funding to help them bounce back, but the program has been historically underfunded and does not allow money to be used to improve the resilience of facilities not damaged by recent disasters. By establishing a pre-disaster transportation program, Congress would help reduce roadway damage and repair costs by allowing states and communities to improve the resiliency of vulnerable and repeatedly damaged assets in advance of the next storm.
- Update the standards for reviewing federal investment in flood-prone areas. The repeal of the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard in 2017, just days before Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, reverted the country to an outdated approach of using only past experiences to evaluate flood risk in federally funded projects. In a world of increasingly costly extreme weather events, this is no longer a viable approach to guide federal investments that are meant to last decades. Today, as Congress considers new investments in infrastructure, it is critical that policymakers act to ensure that all projects using federal taxpayer dollars plan and design around expected flood risk throughout the design life of the investment. The U.S. Department of Defense’s recently updated flood mitigation policies provide an example of an approach that could be applied across the federal government.
Our elected leaders and policymakers have numerous chances in 2020 to help reverse the trend of growing disaster costs with policies that would make our infrastructure, and communities, stronger and safer for decades to come.
Forbes Tompkins is a manager with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ flood-prepared communities initiative.