3 Ways the Biden Administration and Congress Can Lower America's Flood Risk—and Costs

Updates to federal standards, insurance program, and highway relief policy should start immediately

3 Ways the Biden Administration and Congress Can Lower America's Flood Risk—and Costs
gulf shores, Alabama flooding
Floodwaters cover streets and property in Gulf Shores, Alabama, on Sept. 17, 2020, after Hurricane Sally.
Joe Raedle Getty Images

Flooding is a major, persistent, and widespread problem across the United States. 2020 brought another record-breaking hurricane season that caused billions of dollars in damage, and, with spring flood season fast approaching, the country could soon face another round of costly weather disasters. Fortunately, there are several initiatives that Joe Biden and his administration can take to mitigate flood risks to Americans as well as costs, which have ballooned by more than $100 billion each decade since the 1980s.

Here are three actions the Biden administration and Congress should take to make sure that our country’s infrastructure and communities are better able to withstand the growing threat of flooding:

Issue an updated federal flood standard

Despite immense disaster costs and the unprecedented frequency and intensity of storms in recent years, the federal government continues to rely on outdated information when deciding where and how to build projects meant to last generations. The Biden administration can address this failure by issuing an executive order ensuring that taxpayer-funded projects, from roadways and schools to hospitals and water utilities, are designed to withstand increasing flood risk from threats such as sea-level rise and heavier downpours.

An updated flood resiliency standard would help stem disaster costs and disruptions, increase community resilience, and expedite disaster recovery.

This action from the administration would work in concert with bipartisan efforts underway in Congress. Legislation being led by representatives David Price (D-NC) and Lee Zeldin (R-NY) would codify a resiliency standard so that future flood risk is accounted for during review of federally funded projects. Together, these approaches would signal a permanent national commitment to flood-ready investments.

Modernize the flood insurance rate-setting system to reflect true risk and better inform homebuyers

The methodology that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) employs to set rates for federally backed flood insurance policies is outdated and does not account for today’s flood risks. Completing Risk Rating 2.0—a FEMA initiative to use recent data and flood risk information to set rates that are more fair and better reflect a property’s unique flood risk—can encourage smarter development and help the debt-ridden National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) establish stronger financial footing.

The new Congress must do its part to complement this initiative by modernizing the NFIP—which has been extended 16 times without revisions since 2017—before it expires Sept. 30. Reforms should include addressing repetitive-loss properties, eliminating incentives for development in at-risk areas, creating a federal standard for disclosing a property’s flood history, and providing enhanced financial support for communities to undertake flood mitigation projects such as buyouts. 

Make roadways flood-ready

Flooding of roads can block evacuation routes, halt supply chains, and impede access to critical care. Current policy limits the federal government’s ability to repair flood-damaged roads in order to minimize future impacts. By updating the criteria for the Federal Highway Administration’s Emergency Relief program to require consideration of future risk and limiting assistance for repeatedly damaged assets, the administration can reduce disaster costs and compel investments to improve the resiliency of roads and highways.

Congress can build on this effort by requiring resilience measures in transportation legislation. The previous Congress provided a roadmap to achieve this through the America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act (S. 2302) and the Moving Forward Act (H.R. 2), which would create pre-disaster mitigation programs and elevate the importance of considering future risk in state transportation planning and projects.

Together, these steps would lower the costs of flooding and improve the lives of millions of Americans by making communities more aware of risk, equipping states to be more proactive in mitigation, and ensuring that infrastructure is more flood ready.

Forbes Tompkins is a manager with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ flood-prepared communities initiative.

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