United States: Federal Authorities Re-Assessing Approach To Flood Risk

Last Updated: March 13 2015
Article by Bernice I. Corman and Susan E. Golden

Responding to the "new normal" of rising sea levels and devastating coastal storms, federal authorities are re-assessing policies for preparedness, resilience, and floodplain management. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), floods are the most common and costly – and most predictable – hazard affecting communities. After Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, federal resources have been dedicated not just to the immediate recovery but also to reducing flood risk in vulnerable communities over the longer term, with an emphasis on regional and inter-agency coordination in planning and management. Two of these initiatives involve guidance and regulations that are now available for public comment until April.

New Standards for Federal Actions in Floodplains

On January 30, President Obama issued Executive Order (EO) 13690 establishing a new federal flood risk management standard (FFRMS, or Standard), essentially a heightened level of resilience against climate impacts, for federal actions occurring in or affecting floodplains. The new Standard is intended to "ensure that agencies expand management from the current base flood level to a higher vertical elevation and corresponding horizontal floodplain." EO 13690, Section 1. The EO specifically calls on federal agencies to update their flood risk reduction standards, and broadens to the national stage the work begun by the Hurricane Sandy Task Force to build back smarter.

Although FEMA announced three years ago that it would build climate change impacts into its disaster preparedness planning, the bulk of federal agencies continue to use historic flood data when planning buildings, roads, and infrastructure. Moving forward, agencies may use one of four approaches to establish a floodplain:

  • the area that results from using the best available climate informed data and methods, and considering whether the action is 'critical;'
  • the area that is two feet above the 100-year (or 1%-annual-chance) flood elevation, or three feet above, for 'critical actions;'
  • the area subject to the 500-year (or 0.2%-annual-chance) flood elevation; or
  • the area resulting from such other method as identified in a FFRMS update.

A 'critical action' includes "any activity for which even a slight chance of flooding is too great.." Id., Section 2(j).

EO 13690 (confusingly) directs FEMA, on behalf of a multi-agency task force, to issue guidance to agencies on implementing EO 11988 (a 1977 Order on Floodplain Management), as amended by EO 13690; and directs agencies to issue or amend existing regulations to comply with EO 13690, upon the guidance's being finalized after public comment. EO 13690 also directs the task force to update the FFRMS no less frequently than once every five years.

Comment Period on Draft FEMA Guidance

Simultaneously with the President's issuance of the EO, FEMA released draft revised guidelines for implementation of EO 11988, as amended by EO 13690. The comment period on the draft revised guidelines ends April 6, 2015. The guidelines emphasize integration of the new Standard in NEPA analyses, and recognition of the public benefits derived from restoring and preserving floodplains.

National Flood Insurance Program

EO 13690 makes no significant changes to the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), except to require that agencies that guarantee, approve, regulate, or insure any financial transactions under the NFIP inform private parties participating in the transaction of the hazards of locating in areas subject to the 100-year flood.

Tools for Analyzing and Addressing Flood Risk

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) recently reported to Congress on the increasing flood risk to communities along the North Atlantic coast that were affected by Hurricane Sandy. The North Atlantic Coast Comprehensive Study: Resilient Adaptation to Increasing Risk provides a framework for those communities to collaborate on long-term, pre-storm strategies to protect vulnerable populations, infrastructure and resources. The Study emphasizes the need for an approach that includes "non-structural, natural and nature-based systems," which may be contrary to older policies, ordinances and codes.

The Comprehensive Study presents a three-tiered methodology for identifying flood risk and strategies for reducing that risk and promoting resilience. Tier 1, completed as part of the Study, is a regional scale analysis. Conceptual Tier 2 evaluations for nine States and the District of Columbia were also completed as part of the Study. Tier 3 would be local, more detailed evaluations leading to selection of a particular plan or project. USACE and other technical products are provided for each step – e.g., a comprehensive report of environmental and cultural conditions for the North Atlantic Region that can be used for environmental review purposes, an extreme water levels report for sea level change scenarios, etc.

The Study found that "pre-disaster planning and mitigation can save communities approximately 75 percent of post-storm costs." In pre-storm planning, the Study emphasizes the need for collaborative leadership and integrated financial investments across multiple levels of government and private institutions. The Study also suggests methods for overcoming existing barriers to achieving the goal of reducing risk, including working toward consistency in risk/resilience standards, improvements in communication and outreach, simplification of coastal programs, and development of shared science, engineering, and technology resources.

The Comprehensive Study is aligned with a series of federal and local initiatives, strategies and reports undertaken since 2009, leading to a "new paradigm" in disaster preparedness that is adapted to changing climate conditions.

Comment Period on USACE Rulemaking

USACE provides supplemental technical assistance to state, local, and tribal governments in six main areas of emergency response: disaster preparedness, emergency operations, rehabilitation, emergency water supplies, drought assistance, and advanced measures (emergency response to an imminent threat of unusual flooding). USACE is proposing changes to its policies to "incorporate information from recent storm events" such as Hurricane Sandy and flooding on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. The proposed revisions are described in a recent article, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Plans to Reshape Disaster Response Programs. The comment period on the proposed rulemaking ends April 14, 2015.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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