As flood waters rise, outdated regulations make the nation unsafe
In late 2021, the federal government announced that it would do something it hasn’t done since the 1970s: revise key aspects of its flood insurance rules. Since then, the need for this update has been made abundantly clear. The recent string of storms in California caps off another year marked by devastating flooding in eastern Kentucky, St. Louis, Dallas, Yellowstone National Park and many other locations. And Florida is still recovering from Hurricanes Ian and Nicole.
Floods take a terrible toll on homeowners and residents, many of whom are completely unaware that they are at risk.
Climate change has made flood disasters more severe and more frequent. However, developers continue to build in jeopardy, because outdated rules and building standards allow them to. The result: our nation is trapped in a perpetual cycle of flood-rebuild-repeat.
One year ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) took the first step towards reviewing your outdated rules and standards and asked the public what changes were needed to effectively govern development in low-lying flood-prone areas. Hundreds of people, organizations and institutions urged FEMA to update their standards. There was a clear call for climate-smart reforms that curb floodplain development, provide more accurate flood maps, and ensure disclosure of past flood damage to renters and homebuyers.
As administrator of the National Flood Insurance Program, FEMA has a legal duty to adopt rules and regulations that minimize the possibility of future flood damage. One year and many more record floods later, we are still waiting for FEMA to propose new rules.
Despite its name, the National Flood Insurance Program does much more than sell flood insurance policies. Sets minimum requirements for all state and local building codes. It also produces flood risk maps that guide local development decisions and inform engineers, architects, planners and banks where it is safe to build. More than 22,000 towns, cities, counties, and states rely on these flood hazard maps and land use standards that FEMA sets through the flood insurance program.
But land use standards haven’t been updated since the mid-1970s, when Gerald Ford was president. A lot has changed since then. We now know about sea level rise and extreme storms. We now know that it is safer and more cost-effective to raise houses to make them more flood-safe or (better yet) not to develop low-lying areas at all. We now know that it is often more cost effective to help someone move to higher ground than to pay them to rebuild over and over again. And we know that tens of billions of dollars in damage is caused each year by flood disasters and millions of lives interrupted.
FEMA land use standards are stuck in the past as communities deal with 21st century flooding. Archaic practices like “fill and build,” whereby developers haul dirt to put up entirely new subdivisions, are still allowed, even though this pushes runoff and flooding into now-lower neighborhoods that were already there.
FEMA land use standards also do not require that drinking water plants, hospitals, power plants, and other critical infrastructure assets be built with a greater margin of safety in the event of flooding. These are the facilities communities need to withstand disasters like floods. But under current FEMA rules, critical infrastructure assets are built to the same flood protection standard as a hot dog stand.
Compounding these problems, FEMA’s flood maps do not always paint an accurate picture of where it is safest to build, nor do they provide us with critical information about future flood risk. For example, these maps do not incorporate projections of sea level rise, which are essential to guide development in coastal areas. And they don’t account for the most intense storms, leaving inland communities unaware of the greater potential for future flooding. As a result, people who live outside of the flood zone, as mapped by FEMA, are surprised when their homes regularly flood.
FEMA’s flood insurance program should be a key player in the nation’s efforts to address flooding, sea level rise, and extreme storms caused by climate change. In its current form, the flood insurance program is worse than useless; it is a responsibility
FEMA is to be congratulated for asking members of the public for their input on the changes that are needed. Members of flood-prone communities responded to that call., loud and clear. They said they want stricter standards, better maps and more accurate information about possible flooding.
Now a year has passed. More flooding has devastated communities across the country. More new houses were built in danger. More people were displaced from their homes. And we look forward to FEMA taking the next all-important step: proposing modern rules and regulations that bring standards for floodplain construction from the 1970s into the era of climate change.
The nation, and the millions of people living in danger, are running out of time.
Rob Moore is a senior policy analyst with the NRDC’s (Natural Resources Defense Council) Climate Adaptation Team. Before joining NRDC in 2013, he spent nine years as CEO of Environmental Advocates of New York, and prior to that, he served as CEO of the Prairie Rivers Network in Illinois.